Hu's missions to Africa and the Middle East signal their rising strategic value President Hu Jintao's visits to the Middle East, which begins today, and Africa underline China's growing interest in two regions which can help feed its unquenchable thirst for energy assets and resources to fuel rapid economic expansion. Mr Hu was leaving the United States today for Saudi Arabia, and will also visit Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya. 'China's increasing reliance on imports of oil and other raw materials from the Middle East and Africa suggests these regions' growing strategic importance to the mainland's future development,' said Zhang Xiaodong , a researcher with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Western Asian and African Studies. In a briefing on Mr Hu's visits, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi said co-operation in energy and resources would top the agenda of talks with Middle Eastern and African leaders. Mr Zhang said all four nations had one thing in common: they are resource-rich and influential. Mr Hu's trip points to China's effort to broaden the focus of its diplomacy - previously geared towards the big powers and their neighbours. China's first Africa Policy Paper, unveiled on January 12, was evidence of that policy shift, Mr Zhang said. The focal point of China-Africa relations is resources, the paper said. 'The Chinese government will adopt more effective measures to facilitate African commodities' access to the Chinese market,' it said. Gong Shaopeng , a Middle East and North African affairs expert with the College of Foreign Affairs, said energy co-operation would get top billing when Mr Hu visited leading oil exporters Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Jin Canrong , vice-dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University, said China's desperate need for energy supplies and raw materials was behind the government's efforts to diversify its diplomacy. Referring to Mr Hu's visit to Saudi Arabia, Mr Zhang said: 'It is natural for the world's fastest-growing oil consumer and the world's largest oil exporter to forge closer business relations and this co-operation is of strategic significance to both nations.' Professor Gong said China had chosen the right moment to upgrade its ties with Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Its oil consumption was rising faster than any other nation at a time when the United States - the biggest importer of Saudi crude - was aiming to reduce its reliance on foreign oil. Professor Gong said Saudi Arabia recognised that China was the customer with the biggest growth potential. It was already the kingdom's third-biggest customer, taking 6 per cent of Saudi output - and was fast catching up with the US, which accounts for 18 per cent, and Japan, which buys 15 per cent. He said forging closer ties with these nations would strengthen Chinese influence in the region, since Nigeria was the most influential nation in sub-Saharan Africa and Saudi Arabia was a leader in the Arab world and in the Gulf, which holds two-thirds of known oil reserves. Beijing was keen to establish a free trade agreement with the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), a step which would help China forge closer economic ties in the region, he said. The analysts do not believe China is expanding its sphere of influence to serve as a check on the US or other world powers. 'The visits do not mean China wants to expand its political and diplomatic influence in the developing world to check US domination,' Professor Jin said. He said economic strategy was Beijing's diplomatic priority in dealings with the Middle East and Africa. But he conceded some in America might be nervous about the development. 'It is natural China will expand its influence to other regions so long as its economy develops and its economic integration with the world is deepening,' he said. While they noted that China also sold arms to Middle Eastern and African countries, both professors said its military influence in the region was very limited. Mr Zhang said China's common interests with US and other western powers in the Middle East and Africa outweighed any disputes they might have. For instance, in the case of the standoff over Iran's nuclear programme, Beijing saw the proliferation of nuclear arms in the developing world as a threat to regional and global stability. Professor Gong said Beijing might also be seeking influence in Africa and the Middle East to check Taiwan, since the island enjoyed friendly ties with many small developing nations. Beijing was also seeking co-operation with Muslim nations in its anti-terrorism drive targeting Muslim extremists in Xinjiang , said Professor Gong, noting that more and more Chinese Muslims were making the haj pilgrimage to Mecca.