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Arc to West Asia: China's signal for deepening ties with the region (Hindu.)

Beijing hosts Saudi and Israeli leaders, signalling a deepening regional engagement

By hosting the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two heavyweights in West Asia that do not have formal diplomatic relations, in consecutive weeks, Beijing has sent yet another signal on its growing appetite to deepen ties with the region. During the visit of King Salman last week, China and Saudi Arabia announced an investment cooperation deal worth $65 billion that will boost partnerships in fields such as energy, finance and aerospace. Days later, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Beijing, where both leaders vowed to strengthen cooperation in the technology and agriculture sectors. Over the years China has built strong economic ties with countries in West Asia, while staying clear of the region’s several crises and hostilities. It is one of the top buyers of oil from Saudi Arabia and a key trading partner of Israel. For Iran, Beijing remained a trusted ally even during the time of sanctions. China was one of the few countries that continued to buy oil from Iran when most others, including India, either halted trade or implemented massive cuts in imports under American pressure. China’s economic ties with West Asia assumed greater significance after Mr. Xi unveiled the One Belt, One Road initiative. West Asia plays a major role in this Silk Road revival plan, which the Chinese believe will fortify their global standing.

Of late, China has shown a greater interest in expanding its engagement with the region beyond the economic sphere. Its relationship with Iran has already acquired strategic dimensions. It is one of the supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime in civil war-stricken Syria. In the UN Security Council, China, along with Russia, has consistently vetoed U.S.-backed resolutions on Syria, while at the same time offering to broker peace between rival factions. China has also recognised Palestine as a state and offered support for the Palestinians. During his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Xi said peaceful coexistence between Israel and Palestine would be good for both parties and the region. The Chinese have also urged Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together to attain peace. All this indicates that China is ready to end its strategic reluctance in dealing with West Asia and to adopt a gradualist proactive policy that suits its profile as a fast-rising global power. But there are risks as well. Unlike the U.S. and Russia, China has traditionally played a risk-free global role, staying focussed on economic development. It lacks experience in navigating the political, religious, sectarian and tribal tensions in West Asia, both among states and within countries. The three major pillars of China’s West Asia policy — Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel — are rival powers. The challenge before Beijing, if it wants to enter the troubled political waters of West Asia, is to maintain a perfect balancing act.


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