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Why is Saudi Arabia’s king spending a month in Asia?

- March 6, 2017
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman appears with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on Feb. 27. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz began a month-long trip to Asia last week that has taken him to Malaysia and Indonesia, with stops in Japan, China and the Maldives to follow. Coming after high-level visits between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Chinese government officials, the king’s trip is a further indication of the deepening of relations between Arab Gulf monarchies and East Asia. While trade is an important focus for the Saudi delegation, Asia’s growing role in Gulf security is going to be a major feature of the trip.

China and Saudi Arabia’s new military cooperation

The China-Saudi security relationship was emphasized during a visit to China by Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in August, when Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said, “China is willing to push military relations with Saudi Arabia to a new level.” This took shape two months later, with the 15-day joint military exercise in Chengdu, where Saudi Special Forces and their Chinese counterparts trained together in anti-terrorism drills, hostage situations, extreme weather and relationship building at the nonelite level.

Although this was the first time that Chinese forces cooperated in military exercises with an Arab state, Chinese military officials have been developing deeper relationships with GCC officers in recent years. The Chinese navy has been using ports in Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for rest and replenishment stops for its ongoing Chinese Naval Escort Taskforce mission in the Gulf of Aden and along Africa’s east coast. These stops provide opportunities for Chinese officers to call on their hosts, visit Gulf facilities, and participate in cultural and sports exchanges. They also underscore that China views the Gulf as an operational zone of strategic importance.

Growing economic ties between the GCC and Asia

As the world’s largest importer of oil, China considers trade the cornerstone of its relations with the GCC, with bilateral trade increasing from just under $10 billion in 2000 to $158 billion by 2014. A China-GCC free trade agreement is expected soon, and the commercial side of the relationship will only grow stronger, making Gulf security an ongoing economic imperative for China.

This has led to a deeper regional footprint for China, with large expatriate business communities across the Arabian Peninsula — and more than 230 Chinese firms setting up regional headquarters in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Free Zone alone. These companies have been involved in many high-profile projects, including the $1.8 billion railway that the China Railway Construction Corporation built to transport pilgrims performing the Hajj, the UAE pipeline from the Habshan oil field to its Indian Ocean coastline in Fujairah, allowing it to bypass the Hormuz Straits in getting oil to the market. All told, Chinese firms signed an estimated $30 billion worth of construction and infrastructure projects with GCC states between 2005 and 2014, accounting for 8 percent of its global total.

China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative will increase its presence in the Gulf, and with more assets and expatriates in the region, the security dynamic will become a bigger part of the regional role, as China will need to ensure that its interests in the Middle East are protected. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has indicated as much, stating that China will take on a bigger political role in the Middle East, and that it needs to beef up its regional military capabilities to do this.

Saudi leadership has long wanted to see a more politically active China in the Gulf; there always has been an expectation that the relationship would have to move beyond trade for China to be taken more seriously as a strategic partner. And given tensions between the United States and its Gulf allies in recent years, GCC leaders have been engaging other powers to take a larger role in the region, as when a Gulf leader said, “We need a dependable relationship with a major power. If the United States can’t be counted on, then we will have to turn elsewhere.”

Saudi Arabia’s focus on security

While details of the agenda for Salman’s trip to China have not been announced yet, other stops on the trip indicated security is high on the list of issues to be covered in Beijing. Security featured heavily in his visit to Malaysia, with agreements for military exchanges, joint exercises, and strengthened military cooperation. In Indonesia, he used his address to parliament to call for a united fight against terrorism, with a security pact described as the centerpiece of the 10 agreements signed during the visit.

His time in Japan is also expected to have a security focus, with discussions on Japanese cooperation in fighting terrorism, as well as a greater Japanese involvement in maintaining safe sea lanes between the Middle East and Asia. Underscoring this new security dynamic to Saudi-Japanese relations is the announcement that Riyadh is considering posting a military attaché to its Tokyo embassy.

Taken together, Salman’s trip to Asia will further integrate East Asian states into a Gulf security dynamic that is shifting from a U.S.-dominated order to one that is much more complex, with a wider range of states pursuing a variety of interests.

Jonathan Fulton teaches political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. He tweets about China-Middle East relations at @jonathandfulton.