Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Riyadh on Wednesday to meet with leaders from the kingdom and Arab countries, as Beijing strengthens ties with a region Washington considers to be part of its sphere of influence.
Xi was met at the airport by the governor of Riyadh and other officials. He will attend Gulf and Arab summits during the three-day visit.
The visit, Xi’s first since 2016, comes as the kingdom’s relationship with Washington is strained over oil production cuts and just months after President Joe Biden promised in a speech during his visit to Saudi Arabia that the United States would not leave a vacuum in the Middle East. to be completed by China, Russia and Iran.
Saudi Arabia has traditionally been one of the US’s closest partners in the region and is heavily dependent on US military aid. But the increasingly assertive kingdom has also sought to forge closer ties with China, its largest trading partner, and Russia, with which it leads the OPEC+ group.
“It will be the most important and highest diplomatic event between China and the Arab world since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It will be a milestone in the history of China-Arab relations,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told Chinese television ahead of Xi’s arrival.
Saudi and Chinese officials provided few details on the deals expected to be signed during the visit, but they may range from trade and investment to technology and nuclear power.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates rely on Washington as a supplier of military equipment and protection. American hardware would be nearly impossible to replace with what China has to offer. Yet that hasn’t stopped them from approaching Beijing over cooperation in trade, technology and even know-how on ballistic missiles and armed drones.
Washington will follow the visit closely, having warned that some areas of partnership between the Gulf countries and China will affect cooperation with the United States.
“We are aware of the influence that China is trying to develop in the world,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council of the United States during a press briefing. “The Middle East is definitely one of those areas where they want to deepen their level of influence.”
While America was not asking nations to choose between Washington and Beijing, Kirby said, US policies were “better suited to preserving the prosperity and security of countries around the world than those demonstrated or touted by China. “.
Nissa Felton, a senior executive at Janes IntelTrak, a consulting firm, said that while China is not currently a threat to the United States’ historic role as a regional security provider, “increasing ties policies, whether at the top of government, exercised through votes in international organizations like the UN, or the pursuit of joint strategic initiatives . . . is potentially problematic for long-term U.S. interests.”
Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding and Felicia Schwartz