China has signaled its support for Yemen’s government, which is fighting an Iran-allied militia, on the first day of a visit to Saudi Arabia by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will also be heading to Tehran later in the week.
A Saudi-led coalition began a military campaign last year against the Iranian-allied Shi’ite Houthi movement in Yemen, which has seized the capital, Sanaa. The government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is now based in the southern city of Aden.
Riyadh sees the Houthis as a proxy for bitter regional rival Iran to expand its influence in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation. The Houthis deny this and say they are waging a revolution against a corrupt government and Gulf Arab powers beholden to the West.
A growing diplomatic dispute between Riyadh and Tehran, triggered by mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shi’ite cleric, has damaged the outlook for any resolution to the conflict in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and China said in a statement on Wednesday that the two countries affirmed their support for the unity, independence and sovereignty of Yemen. The statement was released by China’s Foreign Ministry after Xi met Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh on Tuesday.
All social, religious and political groups in Yemen should maintain their national solidarity and avoid any decisions that may cause social disruption and chaos, it said.
“Both sides stressed support for the legitimate regime of Yemen,” the statement said.
Xi is expected in Iran later in the week, with a further stop in Egypt after he leaves Saudi Arabia.
Asked whether China was siding with Saudi Arabia over Yemen and whether that could risk upsetting Iran, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China had always acted in the interests of the Yemeni people and maintaining peace in the Middle East, and had promoted peace talks.
“(We) hope clashes in Yemen can come to an end as soon as possible and there can be reconciliation so the country can return to stability,” Hong told a daily news briefing.
China relies on the region for oil but has tended to leave Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Britain, France and Russia.
However, China has been trying to get more involved, especially in Syria, and recently hosted its foreign minister and opposition officials.
China and Saudi Arabia expressed deep concern about Syria and renewed a call for a peaceful political settlement as soon as possible.
A Chinese president has not visited Saudi Arabia since 2009, when Hu Jintao went. Jiang Zemin was the last Chinese president to visit Iran, in 2002.