BEIJING (AP) -- Chinese Premier Li Qiang met with visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday in a drive by Beijing to elevate relations and increase its overall presence in the Middle East.
Li, who took office just this spring with little foreign policy experience, called Abbas "an old friend of the Chinese people" who has made "important contributions to the promotion of China-Palestinian relations."
The meeting came a day after Abbas was greeted with full military honors by Xi Jinping, China's president and head of the ruling Communist Party.
The sides then announced the formation of a "strategic partnership," paving the way to boost China's influence in the region at a time when Beijing's chief rival for global influence, the United States, is seen as withdrawing from the region following the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and complications in ties with regional power Saudi Arabia.
China, meanwhile, is seeking energy resources and markets for its military and civilian exports while also promoting its version of authoritarian government as part of joint challenge with Russia to the Western-led democratic world order.
Beijing has long maintained diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority, and it appointed a special envoy to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials. But its experience in the region is mainly limited to construction, manufacturing and other economic projects.
China relies on such partnerships to bolster its diplomatic posture and give large Chinese corporations a leg up when negotiating infrastructure deals in line with the government's "Belt and Road Initiative," which has left many struggling countries in deep debt to Chinese banks.
China also has sought close ties with Israel to expand its diplomatic presence and to gain access to high technology.
Abbas' visit follows China's hosting of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia that resulted in the restoring of diplomatic relations between the two Mideast rivals and boosting China's standing in the region.
The Riyadh-Tehran rapprochement was seen as a diplomatic victory for China as Gulf Arab states perceive the United States as gradually withdrawing from the wider region.
China has hosted a growing list of world leaders since reopening its borders in the spring after a three-year virtual shutdown due to its extreme "zero-COVID" policy.
Those have included French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose visits sparked controversy over China's pursuit of its campaign to cut off foreign support for self-governing Taiwan and block criticism of its human rights record.
Next week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit Beijing after previous plans were postponed over the presence of an alleged Chinese spy balloon over the U.S. Diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing are at their lowest in decades over trade, technology, U.S. support for Taiwan and an intensifying competition for influence in Asia and elsewhere.
Following that visit, Li is travelling to France and Germany, marking his debut on the international stage as premier and the second-ranking member of the ruling party. The Foreign Ministry announced Thursday that Li would take part in a seventh round of China-Germany government talks and attend a financial summit in Paris during the June 18-23 visits.
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