US Ally Turns to China

( – Prince Khalid Salman, the Saudi Arabian Defense Minister, met with China’s Defense Minister Dong Jung in Beijing and General Zhang Youxia on June 25. Zhang is China’s highest-ranking official in uniform and the vice-chair of its Central Military Commission. The rendezvous indicates that the Saudis are working on establishing defense cooperation with China after relations with President Joe Biden’s administration became increasingly strained over the last four years.

China and Saudi Arabia have been working on strengthening economic ties for several years. There has been cooperation between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 since Saudi Arabia announced its economic diversification plan in 2016.

The Chinese Defense Ministry released a summary of the latest meeting between Chinese and Saudi officials, which said the two countries were poised to raise mutual military cooperation to a higher level. The navies of the two countries previously cooperated on a joint counterterrorism exercise in October following the October 7 attacks and Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Despite Biden’s threats that US-Saudi relations would be affected by the Saudi regime’s decision to halt oil production in October 2023, relations between the two states remained the same months later. The Gaza conflict is central to relations between the US and Middle Eastern nations as a whole. A Biden administration official stressed the leading role Saudi Arabia would play in any progress towards a two-state solution regarding Israel and Palestine.

China is the biggest trading partner and the largest oil customer of Saudi Arabia. The state-owned Chinese defense industry displayed unmanned aircraft and its latest FC-31 fighter jets in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in February. Beijing aims to increase its military exports to the region. The two nations are also furthering cooperation in other fields, such as infrastructure and artificial intelligence.

The meeting between Khalid and Zhang raised concerns for the West due to Zhang’s role in strengthening ties between Beijing and Moscow. Zhang discussed military strategies, including space weaponry, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The strengthening of ties between Saudi Arabia – a longtime ally of the US – and China also highlights the possibility of the Saudi regime opting to join the BRICS alliance, which includes Russia and China. The alliance invited Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to join as members in January 2024, but a Saudi official stated that the country did not join.

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