Saudi Arabia still needs the United States, despite its growing ties to China

AFP
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China has just announced that foreign visitors no longer will be subject to its previously strict COVID-driven quarantine requirements. It was not that long ago that Xi Jingping, fresh from his third coronation as the country’s president, made an overseas trip of his own, to Saudi Arabia. There, the Chinese leader met with his Saudi counterparts and signed a series of agreements that underscored the growing relationship between the two countries.

Many observers have seen Xi’s two-day visit to Riyadh just over two weeks ago as a “snub” to Washington, especially after President Biden’s visit to the Kingdom in July accomplished virtually nothing. Xi and King Salman signed what they termed “a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement,” which the Chinese president posited constituted a “new era” in the ties between the two countries. Again, in contrast to the outcome of the Biden visit, Xi and the king agreed to hold future summit meetings every two years.

Xi’s visit also was the occasion for Chinese and Saudi companies to sign 34 agreements, worth anywhere from $29 billion to $50 billion, depending on which report one chooses to believe. The agreements cover the gamut of economic activity, including tourism, green energy, transportation, logistics, the medical industry, information technology, genetics, mining and construction. The two countries also signed an agreement to “harmonize” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious Vision 2030, which seeks to transform his country’s economy, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has sputtered in recent years.

China is the world’s biggest petroleum importer and the Saudis also guaranteed that they would be a “trusted partner” for its energy needs.

If the tone and tenor of the Xi love-fest in the Kingdom’s capital were not enough to disconcert Washington, his visit also occasioned the signing of an expansive memorandum with Huawei, China’s hi-tech giant. In a policy that has wide bipartisan support, Washington has sought to prevent Huawei’s worldwide expansion on the grounds that it is a critical cog in Beijing’s international espionage campaigns, including spying on American military communications. The memorandum therefore underscores the increasingly cold relationship between the United States and its long-standing ally.

China’s increasing economic involvement in Saudi Arabia does not necessarily translate into a security relationship, however. China may indeed be “an all-weather friend,” as a former Pakistani prime minister once told me, but whatever the weather, that friendship has its strict limits. In particular, China has demonstrated a reluctance to provide any country with security guarantees. Indeed, despite its joint proclamation with Russia just prior to the invasion of Ukraine, stating that “friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation,” Beijing has not felt compelled by its strategic partnership to bolster Moscow’s urgent need for military materiel.

Moreover, China’s policy is to remain aloof from regional rivalries while spreading its influence throughout the Middle East. In that regard, Beijing is party to another long-term partnership with the Kingdom’s arch-enemy, Iran. Moreover, in contrast to Beijing’s economic undertakings with the Saudis, the 25-year China-Iran cooperation agreement that the two countries signed in

March 2021 not only involves a reported $400 billion Chinese investment in Iran, but has a major military component as well.

Indeed, in January, together with Russia, China held naval exercises in the northern Indian Ocean — they had also jointly exercised in 2019 – and in late April, Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe led a senior military delegation to Beijing for talks on military cooperation. Wei met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, as well as with his counterpart, Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, and with Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS) Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri. After his meeting with Wei, Bagheri confirmed journalistic speculation that China and Iran had “agreed to expand bilateral cooperation in joint military drills, exchange of strategies, training issues, and other common fields.”

None of this can be welcome news in Riyadh, which remains concerned about Iran’s threat to its security. Sharing a common enemy, the Saudis are expanding their security ties to Israel. But the Israelis, who have serious security needs of their own, are unlikely to come to Saudi Arabia’s aid with anything like the support that the United States gave to Kuwait after the 1990 Iraqi occupation of that country.

At the end of the day, therefore, Riyadh will still need to look to America to underpin its security. And even if Washington’s focus is on peer competitors in Europe and Asia, as it should be, if Saudi Arabia finds itself desperate for assistance in the face of an imminent Iranian threat, its longstanding friendship with the United States most certainly will come into play. Whatever its current differences with the Saudis, America, unlike China, surely can be trusted not to let them down in their time of extreme need.

Source : The Hill