China's Xi heads up to Saudi Arabia stepping on the US Biden toes
Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Thursday for a two-day state visit amid high tensions between the United States and the two countries, according to a source with knowledge of the trip, an Arab diplomatic source and two senior Arab officials.
Xi’s trip to Riyadh will include a China-Arab summit and a China-GCC conference, according to the four sources.
At least 14 Arab heads of state are expected to attend the China-Arab summit, according to the Arab diplomatic source who described the trip as a “milestone” for Arab-Chinese relations.
The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Rumors of a Chinese presidential visit to the US’ largest Middle East ally have been circulating for months, but are yet to be confirmed by the governments of Saudi Arabia and China.
Beijing has not made an official announcement that Xi will visit Saudi Arabia, reports CNN.
Financial Times sources state that Xi will meet King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler in Riyadh, and attend two summits with Arab and Gulf leaders. Neither side has given details about the Chinese leader’s meeting with the Saudi royals, but the two countries could sign a deal on co-operation ranging from free trade to nuclear power.
The Chinese president’s visit, which comes as he faces mounting pressure at home over opposition to his “zero Covid” strategy, underscores China’s desire to boost links in a region that is traditionally seen by Washington as falling under its sphere of influence.
US president Joe Biden’s message to the assembled Arab leaders when he visited Riyadh in July was: “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran . . . the US is not going anywhere.”
Yet relations between Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed are tense. And despite the president’s pledge to stick around, the view in the Gulf is that the US has grown increasingly distant as it switches focus to other regions — and that China is among those keenest to fill any gap.
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“Everyone thinks the US is on the way out,” said Gedaliah Afterman, an expert on China and the Middle East at the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy and Foreign Relations in Israel. In the strategic battle between Washington and Beijing, “every 10 metres [China] manages to move the Saudis in their direction is not only a win, it’s a double win, because they’re moving away from the US,” he added.
Gulf officials make clear, however, their wariness of getting too caught up in any China-US disputes, in the knowledge that they have to maintain relations with the pair.
Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates count on Washington as a supplier of military hardware and protection. The US hardware would be almost impossible to replace with what China has to offer.
Yet that has not stopped Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations from moving closer to Beijing on co-operation in trade, technology, and even ballistic missile technology and armed drones.
Nissa Felton, senior manager at Janes IntelTrak, a consultancy, said that while China was not presently a threat to the US’s historic role as regional security provider, “increasing political ties, whether at the top of government, exercised through votes in international organisations like the UN or pursuing joint strategic initiatives . . . is potentially problematic for US long-term interests”.
“This broader co-operation — the willingness to sync China’s foreign policy with their own domestic agendas — signals an openness to diversify away from these countries’ traditional relationships with the US.”
At home, Xi faces widespread angst over a severe economic downturn and rising opposition to his policies, which erupted in protests late last month across several big cities. “Xi Jinping needs to divert attention because of domestic dissatisfaction,” said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.