January 20, 2016, 8:12 am

Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd L) holds talks with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (3rd R) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 19, 2016 [Xinhua]

Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd L) holds talks with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (3rd R) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 19, 2016 [Xinhua]

China and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) are committed to working closely to conclude a comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) within 2016, the two sides said in a joint press release on Tuesday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on Tuesday, announced with his Saudi host that “the two countries welcome the progress made in China-GCC free trade area negotiation, and agreed to establish the free trade area as early as possible” Chinese state agency Xinhua reported.

China and the GCC have agreed to accelerate the pace of negotiations, review progress made and hold the next round of talks in the second half of February, said a joint press release on Tuesday.

China and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – started free trade talks in 2004, and a deal will help China cut costs on energy imports from the region.

China is willing to carry out comprehensive energy cooperation with the GCC countries and be a long-term, stable and reliable energy market for the six-member bloc, said Xi.

In Riyadh, Xi also pushed for Saudi participation in the ambitious Silk Road and Belt project of China.

In remarks made during a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Xi said “Saudi Arabia stands at a key junction along the “Belt and Road”…the two countries should discuss aligning their development strategies, and they should actively participate in the interconnectivity and intercommunication in the Middle East and the Gulf region”.

Saudi Arabia is willing to participate in building interconnectivity and intercommunication in the region under the frame work of the “Belt and Road” initiative and “hopes to become a vital corridor in China-Africa economic cooperation”, Saudi leader Salman said.

In 2010-13, GCC trade with China rose faster than with any other trading partner, with imports increasing by 17 per cent, while exports rose by 30 per cent.

Xi arrived in Saudi Arabia earlier Tuesday, the first leg of his three-nation tour to the Middle East that will also cover Egypt and Iran, as the world’s second-largest economy seeks closer political and economic ties with the region.

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