China-Saudi Bonhomie To Bring Paradigm Shift in World Order?

After the end of the cold war, the world moved towards a multipolar system in which Washington is losing its clout and it is being replaced by Beijing quickly. Saudi Arabia wants to join the bandwagon

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Pramode Mallik
Pramode Mallik
is former BBC Producer and a commentator on international affairs.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia King Salman signed the ‘comprehensive strategic partnership agreement’ and several other deals at Yamamah Palace in Saudi Capital Riyadh, they set the alarm bell ringing.

It indicated the possibility of a paradigm shift in the geo-strategic scenario in Asia and the Middle East.

The two sides also agreed to hold meetings of their heads of state every two years.

The signed deals included 34 investment agreements in sectors varying from green energy to hydrogen, from information technology to transport and construction.

Saudi State broadcaster Al Ekhbariya said agreements worth 110 billion riyals or USD 30 billion were signed.

A separate agreement was inked on the ‘alignment plan’ of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and Riyadh’s ‘economic diversification programme’.

The Saudi officials confirmed that the deal over Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies is related to cloud computing and data centres and it will allow the Chinese government firm to set up high-tech complexes in the country.

Earlier the US security agencies warned that the equipment made by Chinese companies like Huawei could be used to interfere with the 5-G wireless network, and collect sensitive information and these pieces of information may be used for military purposes.

Riyadh came out with a grand reception to the Chinese President as his plane was escorted by Saudi jets, spewing red and white fumes, the colours of the Chinese flag.

Riyadh’s Governor Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and the governor of the sovereign Public Investment Fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan welcomed Xi Jinping as he waved from the plane.

Crown Prince, the de facto ruler and Prime Minister Muhammad Bin Sultan shook hands with the Chinese President and King Salman held the guest’s hand warmly.

It can be compared to the low-key and lackadaisical reception given to US President Joe Biden when he visited Riyadh earlier this year.

china-saudi arabia strategic partnership india geo-politics the us
President Xi Jinping and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Sultan | Courtesy: Shanghai Daily
The two leaders met with a fist-bump and Riyadh simply ignored Biden’s request to pump more crude oil at a time when the price of the oil is skyrocketing due to the Russia-Ukraine War.

Sino-US relations came under tremendous pressure when Donald Trump was the president and in a bid to appease the business class of the country, he increased tariffs on Chinese imports.

Bejing retaliated and a trade war followed that brought the bilateral relations to the lowest point in decades.

Later, the two sides made a retreat from the drawn battle lines and the relations improved a little bit.

Joe Biden during the campaign for the presidential election pledged to treat Saudi Arabia like a ‘pariah’ and pressed the Crown Prince about the murder of ‘Washington Post’ columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen.

Khashoggi was allegedly killed by Saudi agents in 2018 at the Istanbul embassy for his continued campaign against MBS, as he is called.

A few months after taking over as the president, Joe Biden released an intelligence report that said the de facto ruler ordered the killing, a charge denied by the Crown Prince.

Recently, the two sides clashed over the Saudi-led OPEC plus decision of slashing crude oil production by 2 million barrels a day. A disappointed US President called it an ‘unnecessary step.’

Experts believe that besides all the rhetoric, the Saudi Crown Prince wants to diversify the oil-dependent economy.

He also wants to develop a civil nuclear programme and build an indigenous defence industry.

Saudi experts want to learn from China and follow its footprint to achieve economic transformation before the oil wells dry up.

They also want technology, the know-how, the required equipment and machinery.

But the bilateral relations will not be limited to the economy, political observers feel.

China wants a foothold in the Middle East and the Muslim Ummah or the Islamic world.

It wants a strategic alliance for its Belt and Road Initiative to push its way to the African continent and West Asia.

Beijing also wants a partner that can support it in the wake of the US pressure in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea.

After the end of the cold war, the world moved towards a multipolar system in which Washington is losing its clout and it is being replaced by Beijing quickly. Saudi Arabia wants to join the bandwagon.

The China-Saudi bonhomie is set to change the geo-strategic dynamics of Asia and India can not be left completely untouched by the development.

In its bid to diversify its economy, Saudi Arabia eyed the Indian economy, a large and ever-expanding middle class and its increasing demand for crude oil.

India imports more than 85 per cent of its crude oil need and till recently Riyadh was the biggest source. Russia replaced it recently as it offered a huge discount.

MBS, the Crown Prince visited India and signed many deals. The state-controlled Saudi Aramco inked an agreement to invest USD 20 billion in India.

On the other hand, Sino-India relations are at their worst and are going through the most difficult time in history, despite being India’s largest trade partner.

China sent its troops in May 2020, the PLA captured a large swathe of Indian territory. Soldiers of both countries were killed in a fight on June 15 in the Galwan Valley.

After 16 rounds of painstaking talks between the area commanders of the two armies, the two sides pulled back.

But a few thousand Chinese soldiers are still stationed in Demchok and Depsang.

Consider Pakistan joining the hands of China and Saudi Arabia in the area and attempting to exploit its relationship with these countries to counter India.

China has tried to use the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to create problems for India on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. It has failed several times, but after the October 5, 2019 decision of abrogating Article 370, giving special power to the valley, Islamabad found many sympathisers.

A five-member delegation of OIC under its Secretary General will visit Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on December 10-12 on the invitation of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

They will also discuss the situation in Jammu-Kashmir, the abrogation of Article 370 and the alleged Islamophobia in India.

Saudi Arabia has been challenged many times by Turkey, which wants to dominate the Islamic world.

Turkey has close relations with both China and Pakistan. In a bid to placate the Muslim world on the issue of Jammu-Kashmir, Saudi Arabia may succumb to the pressure of Istanbul and Islamabad.

It may create a slew of problems for India and complicate the Kashmir conundrum.

Though many people feel that the Saudi-China bonhomie is US-specific and it has nothing to do with India, surprises are not uncommon in ever-changing world scenarios and complicated geopolitical dynamics.

India should be ready for such surprises.

Pramode Mallik
Pramode Mallik
is former BBC Producer and a commentator on international affairs.

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