Is Xi Jinping the man to defuse tensions in the Middle East? Landmark visit to Iran and Saudi Arabia revealed
The first visit of Xi Jinping to the Middle East marks a crucial moment for China’s role in the region
President Xi Jinping is to embark on a whirlwind visit to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in his first diplomatic trip of the year amidst escalating tensions in the region.
The timing of Xi’s visit – coming as Iran and Saudi Arabia lock horns in their worst conflict in a decade – will thrust China to the forefront of Middle East politics. Beijing will be closely watched as it tries to strike a delicate balance between the feuding Tehran and Riyadh.
Both are key oil suppliers to China and crucial to its going out strategy – the much touted One Belt, One Road development plan.
Xi is expected to use the trip to promote the strategy and secure oil supply in the Middle East.
Xi was scheduled to visit Egypt from January 20 to 22, the Egyptian foreign ministry announced last week.
Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency also reported last week that Xi would visit within the month.
The trip will include a leg in Saudi Arabia, according to Guo Xiangang, a Middle East expert and vice-president of the China Institute of International Studies.
“The Middle East has been an important region for China because of its energy resources and geopolitical position,” Guo said.
“These three are major countries in the region, that’ s a key consideration in picking them for this visit.”
Guo said selling the One Belt, One Road strategy – an initiative rolled out by Xi that aspires to build a global network of transportation links – was likely to top the agenda.
“Both the road and maritime projects will have to pass through the region, it is a very important passage,” he said.
The Chinese foreign ministry has yet to officially announce the visits, the president’s first to the region. The last time a Chinese president set foot in the region was in 2006, when former president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) visited Saudi Arabia.
Iran is emerging from international isolation – and sanctions – after signing a deal with world powers including China to limit its nuclear activities.
With Western countries such as the United States set to lift their sanctions on Tehran soon, Guo said the trip could see Xi signing more deals to expand China’s energy imports from the country.
Outside of energy and economics, China has largely avoided diplomatic involvement in the region. But with the feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia continuing, analysts are watching how Xi handles the delicate relations.
“If they had their choice, I think the Chinese side would rather that Xi wasn’t going at a time of such sensitivity, but it was getting to a point where the trip could just end up being delayed endlessly,” Andrew Small, a transatlantic fellow with German Marshall Fund’s Asia programme, wrote in an email.
There were plans for Xi to visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt last year, with Iran to follow on a subsequent trip. But they were quietly cancelled because of the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, according to Small.
But as Iran gets ready to open up, Beijing will now look to “lock a few things in quickly” in a market that was previously uncontested, Small said.
“With Iran poised to open to the world again, there was an imperative to take steps to consolidate that relationship. That’s really the most important stop for Xi on this visit,” he said.
Beijing has maintained close ties with both Tehran and Riyadh and has so far stayed neutral in the spat.
It recently sent a diplomatic envoy, Zhang Ming, to the two countries in an apparent attempt to mediate. But analysts have questioned how far Beijing is willing to go to help de-escalate tensions.
“China has a great interest in containing the current crisis...but other than counselling restraint, China is unlikely to intervene in any other way to de-escalate the crisis,” said Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group.
China’s caution about taking on a serious political role in the Middle East is still pronounced while Beijing’s leverage over the situation remained limited, Small said.
“It will be a delicate balancing act for Xi to avoid creating any impression that China is tilting in one direction or the other,” he said.
“But I would expect more progress on the bilateral relationship with Tehran at the moment than with Riyadh.”