Saudi Crown Prince Set to Arrive in China as Asian Tour Rolls On

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is set to arrive in China on Thursday in the middle of a multi-country swing through Asia that may burnish his image abroad as ties with western leaders remain strained.

The visit will include a meeting with President Xi Jinping and a high-level joint dialogue aimed at boosting relations after the nations agreed to promote a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. He’s expected to visit South Korea after that in the final leg of his tour after stops in Indonesia and Malaysia were postponed.

China overtook the U.S. as the kingdom’s biggest trading partner in 2013. The world’s most populous nation accounted for about 15 percent of all Saudi imports and exports last year compared with 8 percent a decade earlier, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Saudi ties with Asian countries have transformed over the past decade as they displaced the U.S. as the kingdom’s main oil buyers. Now they are strengthening further as western powers have distanced themselves from Prince Mohammed after the killing of critic Jamal Khashoggi in October.

The crown prince received a lavish welcome on his first two stops in India and Pakistan, both of which required delicate handling. India has accused Pakistan’s main spy agency of backing a deadly suicide car bombing that killed 40 members of the security forces this month in the disputed region of Kashmir, which both the nuclear powers claim in full.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan denied that his country played any role in the attack claimed by the Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammed, and said his military would retaliate if India launched any military response. Khan personally drove the prince to his official residence in a break from protocol.

Prince Mohammed vowed to invest $20 billion in Pakistan -- including $10 billion for an oil refinery in the coastal city of Gwadar, where China has built a deep-water port. That amount would dwarf the roughly $53 million Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistan in the last three years, raising questions about whether it would be implemented.

Then in a stop in New Delhi on Wednesday, the crown prince vowed to fight terrorism alongside India after talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who embraced him upon arrival.

“Terrorism is a common concern and Saudi Arabia will cooperate with India in fighting it, including in matters like intelligence sharing,” Prince Mohammed said in a press statement alongside Modi.

Modi said India and Saudi Arabia had agreed to pressure countries aiding terrorism and work toward destroying terrorist infrastructure. The Saudi leader said he saw $100 billion worth of potential investments in India but did not give any details.

In a joint statement issued in Islamabad earlier this week, Saudi Arabia "underlined the need for avoiding politicization" of the United Nations listing regime -- a veiled reference to India’s efforts to have Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, who lives in Pakistan, designated as a global terrorist. China has blocked this motion at the UN.

However, Modi did not seem particularly put out. He traveled to the airport and hugged Prince Mohammed after the royal descended from the steps of his aircraft.

A lawmaker from India’s main opposition Congress party criticized Modi’s "hugplomacy" because of Prince Mohammed’s investment pledges in Pakistan and praise for Islamabad’s anti-terrorism activities.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.