Not too long ago, Deng Xiaoping's 'hide your strength, bide your time' motto informed China's interactions with the outside world as it slowly worked its way up to become the world's second largest economy. As it goes on a 'resource quest' spanning the globe, people might find this axiom surprising. It is clear now that China is attempting to assume a global role commensurate with its economic weight. We see this in China's relationship with Saudi Arabia, where in seeking to secure its long-term energy security, China has to navigate the complexities of the Middle East.
Economic interests are the obvious drivers of the Saudi-China courtship, with the energy sector the bedrock. The partnership is an obvious one given the centrality of energy to both economies. China appetite for oil is growing, while Saudi Arabia has 17% of world's proven oil reserves and is China's largest oil supplier.
Unsurprisingly, both governments have a strong desire to ratchet up bilateral cooperation, reflected in three major bilateral visits in three years. Following King Abdullah's historic visit to Beijing in 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao reciprocated twice, first in 2006 and then in 2009. Agreements on energy, health, transportation, and quarantine were signed.
This combination of high-level visits coupled with deal making continues.
The announcement of an expansion of the oil refinery in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia by Premier Wen two years ago and the signing of agreements to boost cooperation in space during Crown Prince Salman's visit to Beijing this March demonstrates that both sides continue to value this approach to their bilateral relations.
Since 2011, however, the courtship has hit a bump in the form of the Syrian uprising. China has marched in tune to Russia's lead, vetoing a number of UN resolutions on Syria. Newspapers closely aligned to the Saudi royal family swiftly castigated China's complicity in keeping Assad in power. Prominent groups and the former chairman of the Supreme Judiciary Council even called for a boycott of Chinese goods. A rare outburst by the normally stoic King Abdullah expressing his exasperation over UN inaction on the crisis underlined the extent to which the fall of the Assad regime has become the overriding goal of the Saudi establishment.
That outcome has not materialised. Yet the Saudis seem to blame the Russians and the American more than the Chinese. The only setback to China-Saudi relations has been a two-year suspension of the Gulf Cooperation Council-China strategic dialogue from 2012 to 2013.
The Syrian crisis brought some of China's old interests (its close ties with Russia and its strong belief in non-intervention) into conflict with emerging interests. China, however, seems to have placated Saudi anger. China wasted no time in sending envoys to Egypt, France and Saudi Arabia to explain the rationale of its second Security Council veto on Syria in February 2012.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi also mounted something of a charm offensive in the Arab world, including through an interview with Al Jazeera in January this year which was widely circulated in both Western and Arab media.
Wang Yi's efforts paid off, yielding not only the resumption of the third round of the GCC-China strategic dialogue but also a turnabout in Riyadh and the GCC's stance on the role that China should play in its region.
Yet none of this really resolves the tension between Beijing's long-held belief in non-interference and the requirements of its new role as a global actor. China will find itself in ever stickier situations as it stakes its interests in other parts of the world and discovers that its traditionally held principles will require an overhaul in light of new and emerging interests.