Oil and unrest on Wen's agenda
Premier Wen Jiabao will discuss energy supply security and the Arab uprisings when he meets leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in a trip to the three countries that starts on Saturday, officials said yesterday.
Wen would also speak to these leaders about other regional and international issues, Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun said.
The uprisings brought down governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, leading to concerns over the security of China's interests in those countries. China is also worried about the lessons activists at home may draw from the 'Arab spring'.
Zhai said China hoped that countries in those regions would solve their own problems independently, and that their sovereignty and territorial integrity would be respected by the international community.
Wen's six-day trip, during which he will also attend an energy summit in Abu Dhabi, comes amid rising tensions in the Middle East after the US tightened economic sanctions against Iran on December 31 over its nuclear programme.
Ahead of Wen's trip, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was in Beijing yesterday to persuade Chinese leaders to take tougher action against Iran, which sold 22 per cent of its crude oil exports to China during the first half of last year.
Tensions in the region have raised fears that oil exports from Iran to China will be affected, even though China has already started looking for alternative supplies.
Willem van Kemenade, a Beijing-based analyst of China's global relations, said China was exploring alternative arrangements given tensions over Iran were rising and the possibility Tehran could close the narrow Strait of Hormuz between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, through which 35 per cent of the world's seaborne oil shipments passed last year.
Zhai, who was in Iran last month for regular political consultations between the two nation's foreign ministries, said that energy co-operation would be a key agenda item during Wen's visit, but Zhai declined to say whether China was shifting oil purchases from Iran to Saudi Arabia, its main supplier.
Zhai also stressed that China opposed unilateral sanctions against Iran, and that the heated issue should be resolved through dialogue.
'We oppose imposing pressure or unilateral sanction, because these are not helpful,' he said. 'We also hope that relevant unilateral sanctions will not affect China's interest. China's oil co-operation with these countries is normal trade.'
China's main oil-refining company, Sinopec, is expected to sign a deal with Saudi Arabia's state-owned Saudi Aramco to build a 400,000- barrel-a-day refinery at the Red Sea port of Yanbu. It would be Sinopec's first overseas refinery.
China bought 1.15 million barrels a day from the three Arab countries on Wen's itinerary from January to November last year, or about 25 per cent of its total oil imports.
Abu Dhabi media reported that exports of Saudi oil to China rose by 32 per cent in November over the same month in 2010 and that China had bought less oil from Iran because of pricing disputes.