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What's at stake for Xi Jinping's trip to Saudi Arabia

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's bring in Yu Jie, senior research fellow at Chatham House, a think tank in London. Her focus is China's relations with the Middle East and Gulf states - right on point. Welcome to the program.

YU JIE: Good morning, Steven.

INSKEEP: What interests do these two authoritarians really share?

YU: Well, I think there's plenty of things, as your correspondent laid it out, really. I mean, this is very much a transactional bilateral relationship between China and Saudi Arabia. And also, obviously, China is much larger exporter and importer within the region, in the MENA region, than compared with the United States. So I think largely China's interests within Arab states are business approaches, foreign direct investment and seeking new markets for the Chinese companies. So I think it's really largely within economic side of the story.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about that. You talked about foreign direct investment. Jackie referred to more investment opportunities. I am aware that the Saudis, in addition to wanting to sell oil, have wanted money, investment to diversify their own economy and add to the oil economy. Is China willing to put a lot of money in?

YU: Well, I think China is not just only willing to put money but also willing to put its expertise in terms of building infrastructure and also looking for a new market for the state-owned enterprises and which they are good at making infrastructure - I mean, obviously, the physical infrastructure. So that's one thing. But secondly, there's also - if Beijing is really in the mindset of thinking its energy security, and obviously, Saudi Arabia is the No. 1 provider for that for Beijing. So I think it's very much based on transactional approach and business mindset here.

INSKEEP: Well, now as you're talking, I'm thinking of a concern the United States has raised. The United States has warned against countries in Africa and elsewhere in the global south accepting too many Chinese investments because they fear that what the Chinese are really going for is control. Does the United States have something really to worry about when a historic U.S. ally, like Saudi Arabia, builds closer relations with China and seeks Chinese investment?

YU: Well, let's look into this. I mean, not necessarily. I think on the one hand, we can all agree that China's economic presence in the region are extremely strong, but on the other hand, I do not think Beijing will be able to replace the existing security role that the United States has been traditionally provide with - in the region. So that really puts United States and China in the different end of the spectrum when it come to developing relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries.

INSKEEP: Meaning that both the United States and China can have their own relations with Saudi Arabia, and it doesn't particularly harm either one.

YU: Well, I think obviously China taking, as I said, more transactional approach rather than military allies, or China has no interest in get involved in Mideast in terms of military interventions and so on and so forth. So obviously, China's actually quite happy to let the United States do the heavy lifting regarding providing regional security, whereas China is stand behind and doing - conducting business-as-usual approach.

INSKEEP: I'm also thinking that neither China nor Saudi Arabia really went along with the U.S. effort to isolate Russia at the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Saudis weren't really on board. The Chinese, of course, had a semi-alliance with Russia. But now that war is going very badly for Russia. How are they viewing Russia now?

YU: Well, I think China is gradually changing its position regarding Russia. And obviously, as what we can see so far with the G-20 joint statement and China - and also together with the other countries that really denouncing this war. So that's one sign of differences. But on the other hand, I think China's concern with Russia is more to do with the geography, that given the two countries share 4,300 kilometers borders, and China will have to handle Russia well. I think on the other hand, for Saudi Arabia, it is more about what kind of security role that Russia will be able to play within the Middle East in the future. So I think both China and Saudi Arabia, obviously, see the war not eye to eye with the United States but for completely different reasons.

INSKEEP: One other thing - this visit for China - Xi, comes at a moment when his government at home is lifting COVID restrictions under a lot of pressure, including domestic protest. Is Xi just a little bit less powerful, a little bit weaker than he has been in the past?

YU: Not necessarily. I think I would consider the sense of public defiance which happened 10 days ago in China, and then he decided to make a quite swift U-turn, which surprised many, even China itself. So it's not necessarily of, like, being weaker or stronger. It's more about if the people have spoken, and the government will have to listen.

INSKEEP: OK. Yu Jie is a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London. Thank you so much.

YU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.