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Saudi visit underscores China's growing dependence on Mideast oil

BEIJING—China is moving quickly to secure its energy ties with Persian Gulf states, signing an oil deal with Saudi Arabia and offering its king red-carpet treatment.

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz on Tuesday met Premier Wen Jiabao and China's No. 2 leader, Wu Bangguo, in a visit that underlined China's increasing reliance on Persian Gulf oil and its growing involvement in Middle East politics. China offered only sketchy details of five Sino-Saudi agreements signed a day earlier.

Saudi Arabia, China's top foreign oil source, supplies 14 percent of China's oil imports.

China is increasingly at loggerheads with Washington on Middle East politics as its soaring appetite for crude oil draws it deeper into the region.

King Abdullah's visit overlapped in Beijing with the arrival of Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, who cautioned that China might find its future energy security in peril by supporting Iran.

Iran hasn't fully answered international inspectors' questions about its nuclear program, raising concerns that it's secretly developing nuclear weapons. Earlier this month, Iran ended a freeze on work on uranium enrichment, a method that produces fuel for both civilian power plants and nuclear warheads. Iran claims its nuclear program is for energy only.

Britain, France and Germany, backed by the United States, intend to push a Feb. 2 emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors to send the matter to the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to slap economic sanctions on Iran.

But China, which purchases large quantities of oil from Iran and has other commercial interests there, has joined Russia in resisting the move. China and Russia are permanent members of the Security Council.

Zoellick, who met with Premier Wen on Tuesday, said the Iran nuclear issue "is obviously a very important dimension of our work in China right now."

Iran supplies China with about 12 percent of its oil imports. Chinese companies have major oil investments in Iran, and Beijing has offered diplomatic protection in return, forestalling efforts to consider U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

Zoellick said that if Iran proceeds with development of a nuclear program, it "would be not good for energy security in an important part of the world."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said China is "conscientiously studying" a draft proposal from Britain, Germany and France to threaten Iran with sanctions for its nuclear activities. But he added that China still believes "diplomacy remains a good choice to resolve the Iranian question."

Since the beginning of the decade, China has signed hundreds of investment deals with Persian Gulf states and pushed its companies to set up in the region.

Many Arab oil emirates look kindly on China's growing energy appetite, viewing economic relations with Beijing as less cumbersome than those with Washington.

"China is not in favor of democracy being pushed down the throats of countries in the region," said N. Janardhan, a political analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Janardhan said the Persian Gulf states all embrace a "Look East" program to enhance oil exports to rising powers in Asia, primarily India and China.

One of the five agreements signed by China and Saudi Arabia on Monday dealt with cooperation in oil, natural gas and mineral deposits, China's state-run television news reported. Other accords dealt with trade, loans, professional training and Saudi pledges to develop Aksu, a Muslim city in far western China.

No details were available. Asked about the energy cooperation accord, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong said he had "no knowledge of the details of the agreement."

King Abdullah stressed in high-level meetings that warming Sino-Saudi ties compelled him to become the first Saudi monarch ever to come to China.

"We view China as a truly friendly nation. That's why I made China my first stop on my first overseas visit," the king told Wu on Tuesday afternoon before flying on to India.

The Saudi ambassador-designate to Beijing, Saleh Alhegeian, pledged Riyadh's "powerful backing of China" in energy supplies, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051215 CHINA ENERGY

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