Xi, MBS design new horizons
THE Chinese see the Middle East as a place where they make their name as a great power. China-Arab Summit has offered Xi Jinping a platform to pitch China as a superpower alternative to the United States of America.
President Xi has taken his diplomatic offensive to the Middle East. He arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to market China as a competitive alternative to long-time American dominance in the region.
It’s the latest in Xi’s diplomacy blitz that has included meetings with more than 25 heads of state since he secured a third term as China’s paramount leader.
President Xi met 14 Middle Eastern leaders at the Gulf-China Summit for Cooperation and Development and the first-ever Arab-China Summit for Cooperation and Development.
The summits allow Xi to position China as a friendly and reliable ally in stark contrast to the frosty fist bump and stern lecture on human rights that Biden delivered to KSA’s de facto leader Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman during his visit to the country.
For China, the summits are an opportunity to deepen its diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East as the USA diverts attention and resources to counter China’s perceived threat.
The USA-KSA relationship is a fast-moving train wreck and one shouldn’t be surprised to see its outcome.
The USA is fighting back, and has warned the Middle East of the potential risks of embracing China.
China has shown interest in mutually beneficial coalitions. Expect KSA to roll out the red carpet for President Xi Jinping to show the United States of America that its criticism of the regime isn’t cost free.
Biden knee capped early hopes for productive diplomacy with KSA with his 2019 campaign trail rhetoric that accused the Saudis of murdering children in Yemen and his promise to make KSA a pariah over the assassination Jamal Khashoggi.
Those comments, along with Biden’s intent to revive the Obama-era Iran denuclearization pact that former President Donald Trump aborted, has further alienated Muhammad Bin Salman who wants Saudi input on any such deal in order to mitigate what KSA sees as an existential Iranian threat to the KSA.
There are doubts among some long-time Middle Eastern allies of the USA about the durability of its regional commitment, prompting interest in Chinese alternatives.
Saudi Arabia showed its discontent when it teamed up with Russia in the OPEC grouping to reduce oil production to keep prices high.
That was an open rebuke of the United States of America and European efforts to push oil producing countries to boost output in order to slash oil sale revenues that power Russia’s war against Ukraine as well as to reduce global inflationary pressure.
Joe Biden responded by threatening unspecified consequences against the Saudis that have yet to materialize.
China has been KSA’s long-time military hardware and technology supplier of last resort by supplying equipment that the USA refuses to sell due to concerns about sparking a regional arms race.
But a Saudi decoupling from its security relationship with America would be complicated, given the extent to which Saudi Arabia depends on the US weapons platforms like Terminal High Air Area Defence anti-missile systems, M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks and Multi Mission Surface Combatant ships.
President Xi intends to use his one-on-one meeting with MBS to elevate the KSA-China comprehensive strategic partnership to a higher level.
It may include the two leaders sealing a long-mooted deal to abandon dollar transactions for some of Saudi oil sales to China and switch them to the Yuan.
Ties between the KSA and China are underpinned by China’s dependence on Saudi oil. China and KSA sealed a strategic partnership in 2016 tied to stable long-term energy cooperation.
It’s paid off: Bilateral trade was valued at $87.3 billion in 2021. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia-America bilateral trade dominated by Saudi oil sales and the KSA’s purchases of American produced automobiles and aircraft was $24.8 billion same year.
China does not appear to want to increase its security role in the region or become involved itself in regional disputes.
Economic sweeteners alone won’t push ME allies of America into deeper alignment with China.
Arab states including Kingdom of Saudi Arabia do not want to choose between the United States of America and China but the priorities have been shifted.
China’s Iranian oil purchases give Iran an economic lifeline and the two countries sealed a 25-year cooperation agreement last year to boost bilateral trade and cooperation.
China’s intentions in the region are based solely on its broad transactional, commercial and geopolitical interests.
The Arab-China summit is epoch-making. Chinese President Xi Jin Ping will seek Arab support for his signature Global Development and Global Security Initiatives.
Chinese President Xi has invited Saudi King HM Salman Bin Abdulaziz who will visit China early 2023 to cement China Saudi further ties.
China has staged New Word Order. On the other hand Pakistan has shown its irrelevance to China-Middle East development and Chinese design of new geo-economic, geo-political and geo-strategic horizons.
—The writer is editor, book ambassador political analyst and author of several books based in Islamabad.