Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Saudi Arabia Tuesday for the first stop on a closely watched tour that will include visits to Egypt and Iran, as Beijing pushes to widen its access to Middle East oil and potentially supplant Washington as the most influential foreign power operating in the tumultuous region.
While Chinese-Saudi relations have been strengthening for some time — Riyadh is currently the top source of crude oil for China’s massive manufacturing economy — Mr. Xi’s arrival Friday in Tehran will mark the first time since 2002 that a Chinese president has visited Iran.
The trip comes just days after the lifting of international sanctions on Iran under the Obama administration-backed nuclear accord that went into effect over the weekend, and analysts say Beijing is eager to get in on the ground floor as the Iranian government scrambles to end its diplomatic isolation and ink deals with foreign investors.
But with the accord also having triggered escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, some believe Mr. Xi’s goal is to promote a message that both Riyadh and Tehran would be wise to embrace China — not Washington — as the partner of the future.
“China wants to be perceived as the growing power that can restore order to a muddled Middle East, where the U.S. is increasingly seen as no longer dominating regional politics,” said Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security in Washington.
“Right now U.S. policy toward the region seems totally upside-down because we’re pursuing peace with Iran and alienating our friends — the Saudis, Israel and others as well — and China is swooping in to cash in on that vacuum of power,” Mr. Cronin said.
“China is ready to be seen as the neutral outside power that can reduce tension and advance development, whereas the U.S. has lost a lot of traction, if not credibility, in a highly fractious region,” he said, adding that Beijing’s pursuits are well timed given the low price of oil at the moment globally.
“There are bargain-basement deals to be made here,” Mr. Cronin said. “Iran desperately wants some kind of deal. Saudi Arabia wants a deal. China can swoop in and leverage its political power to drive a bargain and negotiate with either of them.”
But China’s own recent economic struggles are complicating Mr. Xi’s mission. Chinese stock market instability has rattled investors around the globe, and the once red-hot Chinese economy has cooled dramatically over the past year, with reports Tuesday saying the country’s growth rate hit a 25-year low of 6.9 percent in 2015.
But the nation’s thirst for oil is expected only to rise during the coming years, and Beijing is increasingly eager to find new markets for goods produced by its low-cost labor industries — two things that analysts say Mr. Xi will have in the front of his mind during his Middle East visit.
While Russia has managed recently to insert itself more deeply into Mideast affairs with its stepped-up military campaign in Syria, most believe China’s approach will center on economics. And, as a result, where Moscow is seen to have aligned itself more closely with Iran than Saudi Arabia, Beijing has avoided taking sides.
The Chinese have generally left Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other major powers, remaining in the background in the international talks on Iran’s nuclear programs and Syria’s civil war. But the growth of its economic interests and its thirst for reliable energy sources have forced Beijing into a more activist stance.
There are signs the Chinese aim to grow a military footprint in the region, since it was revealed in November that Beijing is building its first-ever foreign naval outpost in the East African nation of Djibouti. It’s unclear how the base, which officials claim is for providing logistics support to Chinese anti-piracy patrols around the Horn of Africa, will ultimately fit into China’s overall Middle East policy.
With meetings set this week with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, Mr. Xi’s long-term strategy appears to center on trying to fly above the region’s divisions by using China’s economic heft to promote development and investment deals with anyone who wants them.
“China firmly supports regional countries individually exploring a development path that suits their national conditions,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming said ahead of Mr. Xi’s departure for the region.
When asked about the soaring tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, part of a long-running, sectarian struggle for dominance in the region, Mr. Zhang suggested to reporters in Beijing that China’s desire is to promote stability, and that development is the solution.
“Regarding some of the region’s problems, China has always taken a balanced and just position,” he said. “If the Middle East is not stable, I’m afraid the world can’t be very peaceful. If a country or a region is not stable, it cannot realize development.”
Mr. Xi’s visit to the Middle East is not intended to get drawn into regional disputes, according to Zhiqun Zhu, the Director of The China Institute at Bucknell University, who says Beijing’s primary interests in the Middle East are economic and strategic.
“President Xi is likely to emphasize China’s policy that disputes need to be resolved peacefully through dialogue,” Mr. Zhu told Deutsche Welle, Germany’s state-run international news agency. “However, anyone hoping that China will serve as an honest broker to bring the disputants together will be disappointed.”
But the Chinese president is expected to shed light on China’s overall policy goals for the Middle East in a speech he is slated to give during his visit to Egypt following his stop in Riyadh.
Prior to heading to Tehran later this week, Mr. Xi will meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and deliver a speech at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League.
Saudi state television, meanwhile, reported that King Salman was holding talks with Mr. Xi Tuesday afternoon and that Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman had greeted the Chinese delegation on their arrival.
The Associated Press reported that, in addition to those meetings, Mr. Xi will hold talks in Saudi Arabia with the chiefs of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest Muslim organization.
Mr. Xi last visited Saudi Arabia in 2008 while vice president, and the Saudi monarch visited Beijing in 2014 when he was still crown prince.
Economic ties between Beijing and Riyadh are central to their bilateral relationship. Saudi Arabia presently accounts for one in six barrels of China’s crude oil imports, according to the Xinhua news agency.
China is Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trade partner. While dwarfed by the nearly $600 billion in U.S.-China trade, two-way trade between the Saudis and the Chinese was almost $70 billion in 2014.
A day before his arrival in the kingdom, Mr. Xi published an article in the Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh describing the nation as “a brotherly state” and saying he looks forward to elevating Chinese-Saudi bilateral relations.
He noted that following the 2008 earthquake that hit China’s Sichuan province, Saudi Arabia provided more than $60 million in assistance, the greatest assistance package ever received by the Chinese government.
While China’s relationship with Iran is far less advanced, there are signs that Mr. Xi plans to push an aggressive development agenda once on the ground in Tehran later this week.
China’s official Xinhua news agency said on Sunday that Iran would be a key part of President Xi’s highly touted Silk Road initiative to develop trade and transport links across Asia and beyond, which Beijing refers to as the “One Belt, One Road” strategy.
Potential exists for cooperation in the fields of infrastructure, high-speed rail, natural gas and oil pipelines, Xinhua added.
Such potential, according to Mr. Cronin, fits within China’s immediate goal to cut deals and finance development — but also within its wider strategy to occupy a void left by the Obama administration’s reluctance to engage directly in Middle East conflicts.
Washington, Mr. Cronin added, should be paying closer attention. “We need to be advancing a serious dialogue with our key partners and allies about China’s role in the Middle East, and engaging them to think about what is the most constructive role for China and what would be a negative role that undermines security,” he said.