China stays silent over killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

  • But analysts say even if Beijing is hoping to move closer to Riyadh, its role in the Middle East will be limited
  • China is the kingdom’s largest trading partner and is trying to expand its presence in the region
PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 8:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 10:49am

Amid an international outcry over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and calls for the US and Europe to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia, China has remained conspicuously silent.

But analysts say even if Beijing is hoping to move closer to the Middle East kingdom in the event of sanctions being applied, ties between Washington and Riyadh remain strong – and China’s role in the region would be limited.

Saudi Arabia on Monday said Khashoggi’s death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was a “huge and grave mistake” – after earlier denying for two weeks that the 59-year-old Washington Post journalist had been killed and then later admitting it.

The saga has caused uproar, with Germany, Britain and France calling for Saudi Arabia to provide facts, and Chancellor Angela Merkel saying Germany would not export arms to the kingdom while uncertainty over Khashoggi’s fate persisted.

But Beijing has refrained from commenting on the case, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang last week saying only that China was aware that an investigation was under way.

No further statement has been issued on the saga, either by Beijing or in state media.

Jamal Khashoggi: the elephant in the room at Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’

As Saudi Arabia has sought to move away from its reliance on the United States in recent years, it has tried to step up engagement with China, the kingdom’s largest trading partner with US$42.36 billion in bilateral trade in 2017. Last March, the two countries signed US$65 billion worth of deals in areas ranging from energy to space technology.

China is, meanwhile, seeking to expand its presence in the Middle East – Vice-President Wang Qishan is travelling to the region this week, with stops in Israel, Palestine, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

But despite its ambitions, analysts say China’s role in the Middle East will be limited, and it will be difficult to boost ties with Riyadh while maintaining relations with Saudi rival Iran.

Oded Eran, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Studies at Tel Aviv University, said China would not gain from the row between the US and Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi and other governments in the region have strategic relations with the US and their common aim is to contain Iran, while China has close relations with Iran economically and militarily. I doubt China will change its policy towards Iran afterwards,” he said.

China has backed Iran’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – a security bloc led by Beijing and Moscow – and held naval exercises with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz.

Liu Naiya, an international relations expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a “war of words” was playing out between Washington and Riyadh, and it might not result in sanctions being imposed.

“Trump may just be using harsh words because the midterm elections are coming up, and actually he might not do anything at all because Saudi Arabia is a key US ally in the Middle East,” Liu said. “If the US really does impose some punishment, the impact on China will depend on how severe it is.”

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang