CAIRO — Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China discussed Middle Eastern politics and oil with Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud over the weekend on a closely watched visit to Saudi Arabia that American diplomats hope may help loosen China’s ties to Iran.
Mr. Wen’s visit to Saudi Arabia, his first in two decades and part of a six-day swing through the region, comes as China faces new pressure to reduce its reliance on Iranian oil in concert with Western efforts to punish Iran for its nuclear program. President Obama recently signed legislation that could potentially limit Chinese access to the American financial system if Beijing does not scale back its trade with Iran, and the European Union is considering large reductions in its purchases of Iranian oil as well.
Saudi Arabia, a regional rival, has its own reasons to deter Iran from its nuclear program, and American diplomats hope that the Saudis and other Persian Gulf nations will help assure China, Iran’s biggest customer, of access to alternative oil supplies.
China is also an ally of Syria’s and, along with Russia, one of two members of the United Nations Security Council blocking any consideration of potential United Nations actions against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for his deadly crackdown on protesters calling for his exit. Saudi Arabia has led the Arab states in criticizing Mr. Assad, who also has close ties to Iran.
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Rayed Krimly, an official of the Saudi Foreign Ministry, said the two leaders and their delegations had discussed Iran and Syria as well as Iraq and the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “We, of course, explained our position very clearly on all of these regional issues,” Mr. Krimly said.
They also talked business, Mr. Krimly said, noting that Saudi Arabia was already China’s biggest source of oil imports. “I think they will increase, but these details are usually left for technical discussions,” he said.
During the trip, Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company Aramco reportedly signed an agreement with China’s Sinopec to build an oil refinery in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. Intended to be operational in 2014, the plant will process 400,000 barrels per day.
Still, China has shown no enthusiasm for the sanctions on Iran. China may not want to limit any of its oil supplies while its economy shows signs of slowing. Beijing is preparing for a political transition that could make it averse to diplomatic controversy, and a vocal Chinese expatriate community in Iran is a force for preserving ties between the nations.