by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Jan 15, 2016
Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran next week, Beijing's foreign ministry said Friday, as the world's second-largest economy seeks greater diplomatic heft in a crucial and tense region.
Spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement that Xi would visit the three Middle Eastern countries over five days from Tuesday.
The trip, Xi's first to the region as president, comes amid mounting tensions over the war in Syria and after protesters ransacked and burned the Saudi Embassy in Tehran over the execution of a Shiite cleric.
China depends on the Middle East for its oil supplies but has long taken a back seat in the region's diplomatic and other disputes, only recently beginning to expand its role, especially in the Syrian crisis.
"China is the biggest importer of Middle Eastern oil," Zhu Feng, professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, told AFP. "So stability in the Middle East is what China would most like to see."
As China's economy has grown, its dependence on imported oil and natural gas has increased, making the Middle East a crucial part of Beijing's strategy as it seeks to expand its influence through Xi's signature foreign policy initiative, known as "One Belt One Road".
The massive investment scheme aims to increase China's footprint from central Asia to Europe through the use of loans to build infrastructure and transport networks.
Touted as a revival of ancient Silk Road trade routes, the initiative underscores China's ambition to wield geopolitical power to match its economic might.
"Xi Jinping is very committed to projecting China's image overseas, to boosting China's international footprint to a level which is commensurate with its fast-growing economic and military power," Willy Lam, professor of politics at Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AFP.
Beijing was trying to project power and influence in the Middle East, seeing an opening in the troubled region as US policy "hasn't been very successful under (US President Barack) Obama", he said.
China was presenting itself as "a mediator with no strings attached", added Lam, in contrast to Washington, which has "vested interests in that part of the world going back four, five decades".
- 'Rare opportunity' -
This week a Chinese diplomat urged "calm and restraint" between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but Xi's trip was most probably organised before the discord erupted between Riyadh and Tehran, Zhu said.
"Clearly now there are tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, so he will be going there in the role of persuader" seeking cooperation against in the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group, Zhu said.
"China will try and do what it can, but it still won't play a main role."
In a commentary, the official Xinhua news agency said: "Although China never takes sides, it will be a rare opportunity for China to call for calm and restraint from both sides."
In the past month, Beijing has hosted high-level members from both the Syrian regime and its opposition.
It has consistently urged a "political solution" to the Syrian crisis, despite being seen as having long protected President Bashar al-Assad, and four times vetoed UN Security Council measures aimed at addressing the conflict.
Last year, China helped broker a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, which has begun to emerge following years of international isolation.
Days after the signing of the historic framework agreement, Iran was approved as a founding member of the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is expected to provide funding for One Belt One Road.
On Wednesday, China published its first official Arab Policy Paper, claiming a "broad consensus on safeguarding state sovereignty and territorial integrity, defending national dignity, seeking political resolution to hotspot issues, and promoting peace and stability in the Middle East".
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