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Xi eyes multiple goals on Middle East visit (JMD quoted in The Straits Times)

Xi eyes multiple goals on Middle East visit

PUBLISHED JAN 19, 2016, 5:00 AM SGT

Chinese President's first official trip there will cover areas such as economic deals, regional peace, counter-terror cooperation

China Correspondent In Beijing

President Xi Jinping kicks off his first official visit to the Middle East today with a packed agenda, as China steps up its engagement with the region at a time of heightened instability. Over five days in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, he will look to score economic deals, encourage regional peace and push counter-terrorism cooperation, analysts told The Straits Times.

"These are perhaps the most important countries in the region in terms of their security, economic, demographic, religious and diplomatic influence," said political analyst Richard Weitz from the Hudson Institute. The region, which marks 60 years of diplomatic ties with China this year, is also an important part of China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative, being one of the main locations where continental transit routes and maritime routes converge, noted Dr Andrew Small from the German Marshall Fund's Asia programme.

But Mr Xi arrives as tensions are flaring between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He is visiting both countries to prevent any suggestion of taking sides, even as war in Syria continues to destabilise the region.

Such concerns scuppered previous arrangements for trips, after one was planned last year. With recent developments, however, China can no longer wait.

For one thing, China is closely watching the future direction of Iran's economic and political relationships, as a result of a landmark nuclear deal and its warming up to the West.

Mr Xi will see it as imperative that China be one of the first to take advantage of Iran's imminent opening, after the United States and Europe lifted economic sanctions over the weekend.

"Iran is the next big market in the Middle East, and China is keen to get in on the ground floor," said Middle East expert James Dorsey from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

In a report published yesterday, Iran's Ambassador to China Ali Asghar Khaji told 21st Century Business Herald that the two countries are planning to sign deals on finance, high-speed rail, a free trade zone and energy.

Mr Xi is also likely to encourage Saudi Arabia and Iran to help facilitate a political settlement in war- torn Syria. Last month, China offered to host talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups, in an attempt to broker peace.

The Syrian conflict and resulting turmoil have been a major concern for China, which is the world's top oil importer and draws more than half of its crude supply from the Middle East.

China also has significant investments in the region.

At the same time, its leaders are worried about Uighur militants from China's western Xinjiang region joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the effect this could have on domestic security.

Beijing has recently appeared to step up its counter-terrorism efforts in Xinjiang, which remains plagued by reports of unrest.

In its first Arab Policy Paper - released last Wednesday ahead of Mr Xi's visit - China said it supported Arab states and was willing to join them in addressing the threat of regional and international terrorism.

It added it is ready to work with the region's countries to establish a long-term security cooperation mechanism, strengthen policy dialogue and promote intelligence information exchange.

"Beijing is looking to work more closely with the countries that have influence over the situation on the ground," noted Dr Small.

Mr Xi's visit has also led to speculation that China can act as a mediator between the feuding Saudis and Iranians.

Relations between the two sides turned acrimonious recently, after protesters ransacked and set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Teheran, following Riyadh's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

But observers say that China is unlikely to do so given the political sensitivities, and the fact that neither side has officially solicited its help.

"There's no mediation possible at this point," said Mr Dorsey. "In any case, I don't see what leverage Mr Xi can bring to the table."


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