As China scrambles to ensure a stable supply of energy, Beijing is looking to boost bilateral relations with oil-abundant Gulf countries by entering into a strategic partnership and expediting the implementation of a free-trade agreement. In a rare move, Beijing invited a high-level delegation of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, including its secretary general and the foreign ministers of four member countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain – for a China visit this week . “The two sides agreed that the conditions are ripe to establish a strategic partnership. We will accelerate the process and elevate bilateral relations to a new level,” the Chinese foreign ministry said after Tuesday meeting’s between GCC Secretary General Nayef Falah Al-Hajraf and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The ministry said both sides agreed to negotiate a bilateral free-trade agreement as soon as possible, after nine rounds of talks since 2004. ‘Self-sufficiency’ in key commodities vital for China: Xi Jinping “We will leverage the geographical advantages of GCC countries,” the statement said. “We will share China’s vast market opportunities, help GCC countries become regional logistics and shipping hubs, and attract more capital and technology investment to the Gulf region.” When China applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement, Beijing used the opportunity to push forward bilateral and regional trade deals, and the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership took effect at the beginning of this month. Given that China imports more than 70 per cent of its crude-oil requirements, and with Beijing looking to insulate the energy lifeline from price volatility and shipping disruptions, free-trade talks with Gulf countries keep the focus on energy security. The Tuesday meeting statement, however, revealed few specifics about energy cooperation. He Weiwen, a senior fellow with the Centre for China and Globalisation, said the Gulf region plays an important role in Beijing’s plan to build a high-level, free-trade network with several countries. Meanwhile, “these [Gulf] countries are … boosting industrialisation, as shown in the Saudi Vision 2030 [development blueprint], which means there is a lot of room for investment and cooperation”, he said. The world’s second-largest economy imported 375 million tonnes of crude oil from six GCC countries in 2020, marking an increase of 140 per cent from a year earlier and accounting for 69 per cent of China’s total crude-oil imports. Overall crude imports rose 6.9 per cent from a year earlier to 99.78 million tonnes in the first half of last year, according to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. China after natural gas from Russia amid deteriorating ties with Australia, US “The visit of such a high-level [Gulf] delegation at the beginning of the new year signals that it wants to strengthen economic and trade cooperation with China,” former commerce minister Wei Jianguo wrote in an article for China Going Global think tank on Tuesday. “As the world’s largest crude-oil and natural-gas supplier and buyer, they need to sit down to negotiate how to achieve decarbonisation goals after the COP26 climate summit .” The six-member regional bloc, which also includes Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, controls about 45 per cent of the world’s crude-oil reserves. Its members are also all part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative . China replaced the European Union as the bloc’s largest trading partner in 2020, when bilateral trade was valued at US$161.4 billion, according to the Chinese foreign ministry. China’s imports from the bloc dropped 18.7 per cent to US$90.6 billion in 2020 as the price of crude plunged, but its exports to the bloc rose 5 per cent to US$70.8 billion that year. The ministry also said China’s imports from the bloc rose 35.6 per cent to US$63 billion in the first half of 2021, while exports grew 29 per cent to US$40.8 billion. Wei noted that economic cooperation between China and the Gulf bloc is mutually beneficial, and that now is the best time for them to sign a free-trade agreement. “The GCC has abundant crude oil and natural gas that China wants. Similarly, [the GCC] needs Chinese electronics, electromechanical, light industry and textile products, as well as hi-tech goods,” he wrote. Separate from their nine rounds of talks in the past 18 years, the two sides also agreed to hold their fourth strategic dialogue – dating back to 2012 – in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as soon as possible. They also agreed to jointly formulate a three-year action plan for the strategic dialogues to introduce new content, with the potential to expand to new areas of bilateral cooperation, the statement said.