This week's visit to Saudi Arabia by Chinese President Hu Jintao and January's visit to Beijing by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah — which the Chinese visit reciprocates — makes the strongest of points about the current state of relations between Riyadh and Beijing. There is a dynamism, largely economic but increasingly political as well, which has been quietly developing over recent years and which today is of the first order. The scale of change is as remarkable as it has been relentless. Ten years ago, Saudi-Chinese relations were insignificant. Today Saudi Arabia is China's principal oil supplier and China the principal buyer of the Kingdom's oil. Saudi Arabia is to increase oil and gas exports to China by 39 percent; China's national oil company, Sinopec, is exploring for gas in the Empty Quarter and there are plans for a 5.2 billion Saudi-funded petroleum refinery and petrochemical complex in China to process oil imported exclusively from the Kingdom. A 100-million-ton crude oil storage facility, to be filled with Saudi oil, will be built in China's Hainan province. It will both calm Chinese worries about supplies of oil and allow the Kingdom to extend marketing and supplies throughout the Far East.
While all this is primarily about energy sales — more specifically about China's requirements to fuel its lightning industrialization — the two visits go much further than that, as seen in the wide range of discussions and agreements made during both trips; five key pacts promoting cooperation on security, defense, health, trade and youth affairs were signed on Saturday in Riyadh. It is no exaggeration to say that the two visits symbolize a strategic shift in economic and political ties for both countries. Put in simple terms, China is going to be as important a partner in the coming years as the West was during the developing decades of the 1970s and 1980s. That is bound to affect those political ties.
Within that context, it was thus welcome to hear Hu, at the end of his visit, say that China wants to see a stable Middle East and will try to help achieve that goal. Any such help will be gratefully received, given the present festering stagnation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the potentially explosive financial blockade of the Hamas government by the US and EU and the murderous mess that is Iraq — all the more so from China because it has until now been the most reticent of the five permanent UN Security Council members in pursuing active international policies.
Hu wants China to play a more active role on the world stage and his present tour, first to the US, then Saudi Arabia and now Africa, shows his priorities. But they are unmistakably priorities of business and economics. We can have no illusions about that, nor about what China wants from its new relationship with the Kingdom. China's prime interest in Saudi Arabia is energy. It will be up to us to ensure that from that interest, investment and business flow — and that the Kingdom does not become, like the US, a dumping ground for artificially cheap Chinese exports. The developing partnership, in short, must be one between equals.