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China eyes closer energy, political ties at Sino-Arab forum

BEIJING, May 29, 2006 (AFP) - China will seek to develop closer energy links with the Middle East when it hosts an Arab summit this week although the presence of a Hamas official as Palestinian foreign minister could grab the headlines.

The second ministerial meeting of the China-Arab Cooperation Forum will be held in Beijing Wednesday and Thursday, attended by foreign ministers from Arab countries and co-chaired by Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa.

While little information has been given by China on the forum's agenda, analysts say it is part of Beijing's push to develop closer trade and political ties with the Arab world, particularly in the energy sector.

Barry Sautman, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said China's main objective in dealing with the oil and gas-rich Arab nations is to secure access to their resources.

China, the world's second largest energy consumer, has seen oil demand increasing by about 15 percent annually, making it ever more dependent on imports, most of which come from the Middle East.

Seventy percent of China's oil imports will come from the Middle East by 2015, up from 58 percent currently, according to estimates by the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

"Needless to say, China is very concerned about making sure it has a steady flow," Sautman said.

China's trade with the 22 Arab nations totalled 51.3 billion dollars last year, a 10-fold increase over a decade, according to China's foreign ministry, and experts say there is plenty of room for growth.

"The 22 (Arab) nations (form) a huge market ... current trade is still quite a small figure and there is a lot of potential," said Tang Zhichao, director of Middle East Studies at the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

China also has strategic interests in developing closer ties with the Arab world as it seeks more allies to balance its dealings with the West, experts say.

"Chinese leaders believe the United States is trying to encircle China ... there is Japan, there is Taiwan, India, one or two central Asian states, there is Mongolia. That is a complete loop around China," Sautman said.

"China at least wants to try to (out)flank that by friendly relations with Central Asian and Middle Eastern states," he said.

Arab nations also have much to gain from closer ties with China in their own relations with the West.

"(Arab nations) like dealing with a superpower that doesn't ask questions," said Paul Harris, political scientist at Hong Kong's Lingnan University.

"It is a dream come true for Arab governments."

In a sign of its willingness to flout Western opinion, China invited Palestinian foreign minister and senior Hamas leader Mahmud al-Zahar to the forum, much to the displeasure of the United States.

China will become the second United Nations Security Council member after Russia to host a Hamas leader since the radical Islamic movement formed a government following its victory in Palestinian elections in January.

The Chinese foreign ministry has said there is no reason to ban democratically elected Hamas from the forum.

"We don't necessarily agree with Hamas' policies but as it is chosen by the Palestinian people, we should respect their choice," Zhai Jun, the director general of the foreign ministry's West Asian and North African division said earlier this month.

China has also said it will use the event to urge Hamas to resume peace negotiations with Israel.
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