BEIJING: 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 Agence France-Presse. “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 Agence France-Presse.
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”.