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

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.

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