Saudi crown prince in China on latest stop of Asian tour

By CHRISTOPHER BODEENMarketsAssociated Press

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in China on Thursday on the latest stop of a sweep through Asia that seeks to boost relations with the kingdom's neighbors amid frictions with the West.

Prince Mohammed's visit follows trips to India and Pakistan, which send millions of laborers to Saudi Arabia and are seeking closer economic ties.

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He is to meet Chinese officials, including President and ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, on Friday, highlighting Saudi Arabia's importance as one of China's top oil suppliers and a market for its exports, including military drones.

The visit underscores China's attempts to balance its relationships in the Middle East, a major component of its "Belt and Road" initiative to link its markets to those in Asia, Africa and Europe through rail and road networks and infrastructure such as power stations and factories.

Prince Mohammed's visit to Beijing follows one earlier this week by a high-powered delegation from Saudi Arabia's chief strategic rival, Iran.

At a meeting Wednesday, Xi told Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani that "China's resolve to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran will remain unchanged," regardless of the evolving international situation, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.

China has also pursued robust ties with Israel.

The crown prince's trip comes five months after he came under intense pressure in the U.S. and elsewhere following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Some reports allege Khashoggi was killed on orders of the royal family. In the U.S. Congress, criticism over the kingdom's handling of the war in Yemen has also been building for months.

China is facing growing international criticism over its treatment of its Muslim minority groups as part of a wide-ranging crackdown on religion and minority languages.

Thus far, Turkey has been the only majority Muslim country to criticize Beijing, with its Foreign Ministry this month calling treatment of minority Uighurs "a great cause of shame for humanity" and saying it is "no longer a secret" that China has arbitrarily detained more than a million Uighurs in "concentration camps."

Saudi Arabia's Al Saud royal family has long cast itself as the defender of Muslims across the world. Its king describes himself as the protector of Islam's two holiest mosques at Medina and Mecca. Observant Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of the cube-shaped Kaaba at the mosque at Mecca.

Saudi Arabia's silence on the Uighur issue is partly explained as a show of appreciation for China's non-interference policy in other states' domestic affairs, which contrasts with Western states' linkage of foreign and economic relations and human rights, said Jonathan Fulton, a political scientist at Abu Dhabi's Zayed University.

It also reflects China's success in framing its policies toward Muslim minorities as a struggle against political Islam, Fulton said.

"Many Arab countries are also concerned with Islamist political groups ... and see these as ideological threats to their governments," he said.

Commenting Wednesday on the crown prince's visit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said recent years have "seen a positive momentum in our cooperation with fruitful outcomes in various areas such as infrastructure and space satellites."

"We hope that through this visit we will enhance our relations enhance mutual trust, deepen cooperation ... and inject momentum into our bilateral relations," Geng said.

Prince Mohammed is to visit South Korea after Beijing.

In New Delhi, he offered intelligence sharing and other cooperation with India in fighting extremism and terrorism, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi tackles rising tensions with Pakistan following a suicide bombing last week on Indian paramilitary soldiers in disputed Kashmir.