China's Xi to visit Saudi, Iran in new diplomacy push

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivering his 2016 New Year speech in Beijing on Dec 31, 2015.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivering his 2016 New Year speech in Beijing on Dec 31, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping will make an unusual visit next week to Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are locked in a bitter dispute, in what could be a bid by Beijing to act as an "honest broker" as it seeks a greater regional diplomatic role.

While relying on the region for oil supplies, China has tended to leave Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Britain, France and Russia.

But China has been trying to get more involved, especially in Syria, recently hosting both its foreign minister and opposition officials.

In a brief statement, China's Foreign Ministry said Xi would visit Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt on his Jan 19-23 visit. It provided no other details.

A Chinese president has not visited Saudi Arabia since 2009 when Hu Jintao went, and Jiang Zemin was the last Chinese president to visit Iran, going in 2002.

Tensions between the Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Muslim Iran have escalated since Saudi authorities executed Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan 2, triggering outrage among Shi'ites across the Middle East.

In response, Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Teheran and its consulate in Mashhad, prompting Riyadh to sever relations. Teheran then cut all commercial ties with Riyadh, and banned pilgrims from travelling to Mecca.

Last week, a Chinese envoy visited Saudi Arabia and Iran, where he called for both countries to exercise calm and restraint amid their on-going feud.

"China is trying to present itself as an honest broker between Saudi and Iran, much as it has done between the Syrian government and opposition," said one Beijing-based diplomat, who is familiar with China's Middle East policy.

Li Shaoxian, vice president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think-tank, said China had to step up to the plate in the Middle East, but stressed China's role would be different from other superpowers.

"The Middle East is a touchstone for major powers," Li said. "Whether it is a graveyard depends on whether a country seeks hegemony," Li said, adding that was not China's intention.

The Middle East, however, is fraught with risk for China, a country that has little experience navigating the religious and political tensions that frequently wrack the region.

Diplomatic sources said the Iran and Saudi trips had originally been mooted for last year.

But it was cancelled after a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Muslim allies began air strikes in Yemen against the Iran-allied Shi'ite Houthi movement, as China apparently did not want to be seen to be taking sides in the Yemen civil war.

China also has its own worries about radicalisation of the Muslim Uighur people who live in China's far western region of Xinjiang, which has been beset by violence in recent years, blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants.

This week, China said it wanted to develop deeper defence and anti-terrorism ties with the Arab world, including joint exercises, intelligence sharing and training.

China says some Uighurs have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with militant groups there.

In November, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria said it had killed a Chinese citizen it had taken hostage in the Middle East.