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Did Saudi Arabia just side with China on the South China Sea?

Did Saudi Arabia just side with China on the South China Sea?

'His highness criticised the actions of the United States in the South China Sea, describing such measures as being in conflict with Chinese and Saudi interests.'

This was the last line of an otherwise unremarkable article published last week in the Saudi newspaper, al-Watan. The Highness referred to was Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, and the country's most powerful figure after his father, the King. The article was published ahead of Prince Muhammad's trip to China this week to attend the G20 Summit in Hangzhou.

On the basis of a quick search, this appears to be the clearest public statement of the Saudi position on the South China Sea; assuming, of course, that it is an accurate reflection of what the Deputy Crown Prince said.

CSIS's Asian Maritime Security Initiative (AMTI) has listed Saudi Arabia as one of 31 countries that supported China's view that the Permanent Court of Arbitration's hearing of the Philippines case on the South China Sea was illegitimate. But the basis upon which AMTI has listed Saudi Arabia as supporting China was a general statement included in the communique of the last ministerial meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held in May this year.

The communique said that Arab countries support the efforts of China and the countries concerned to find a peaceful solution to territorial and maritime disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations, and on the basis of bilateral agreements and regional consensus. The communique does not specifically mention the South China Sea, or the Tribunal. (The communique only appears to be in Arabic or Chinese. But there is a summary in English here.)

If the Deputy Crown Prince really did criticise US actions in the South China Sea, it is pretty noteworthy. You would be hard pressed to think of another US ally that has come out so strongly on the Chinese side of the South China Sea issue.

Saudi Arabia has been deepening its relations with China for a few decades mainly because it sees China as a critical market for Saudi Arabia's oil. This is particularly important now that many of Saudi Arabia's traditional oil markets are no longer growing. In that regard the comment may have been intended to warm the Deputy Crown Prince's welcome in Hangzhou.

The Chinese are not, however, about to supplant the US as Saudi Arabia's main strategic ally any time soon. Beijing cannot supply Riyadh with the sophisticated weapons, intelligence and training that the US currently provides. Nor is it clear that the Chinese have a desire to be playing a bigger strategic role in the Middle East at the moment. [fold]

It is also worth noting that the line about the South China Sea immediately followed another comment in the article attributed to the Deputy Crown Prince. The article referred to a growing campaign in some Western capitals for the imposition of an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia over its military intervention in Yemen. Prince Mohammad was quoted as saying that if Western countries stopped selling arms to Saudi Arabia it had alternatives among Asian allies, both for the import of weapons and for the export of oil.

The Deputy Crown Prince has already gained a reputation for shooting from the hip. This tendency, combined perhaps with some agitation over talk of an arms embargo, suggests his comment about the South China Sea may have been a loose rhetorical shot across America's bow.

Even if there is no strategic intent behind the comment, it does highlight the potential for strategic dynamics in West Asia and East Asia to become a little more intertwined. But if this does occur it is not entirely clear that the Saudis would be ready for it.

When I was in Riyadh a few years ago I asked a number of Saudis how their country would react if the United States came into conflict with China and sought to impose an oil embargo. (The US imposed an oil embargo on China during the Korean War). Mostly the response was a shrug of the shoulders.

Things may have changed in recent years, as Sino-Saudi relations have developed. But given that the Deputy Crown Prince's advisers would be hard pressed keeping up with changing strategic dynamics in the Middle East at the moment, I doubt they would have much time to keep abreast of developments in Asia.

Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

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