Iran and mainland China vow tighter ties as Xi visits

TEHRAN - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday hailed a "new chapter" in relations with mainland China after talks with mainland China leader Xi Jinping, who is touring the region to boost Beijing's economic influence. The Asian giant and the Middle East's foremost Shiite power aim to build economic ties worth up to US$600 billion within the next 10 years, Rouhani announced.

The two leaders oversaw the signing of 17 agreements in areas including politics, the economy, security and co-operation on peaceful nuclear energy.

"(With Xi's) visit to Tehran and our agreements, a new chapter has begun in Tehran-Beijing relations," Rouhani said in a televised speech, flanked by Xi.

It is the first visit to Iran by a mainland China leader in 14 years, according to state news agency IRNA, and comes just days after sanctions against Tehran were lifted under a historic nuclear deal with world powers. "Iran is China's major partner in the Middle East and the two countries have chosen to boost bilateral relations," IRNA quoted Xi as saying.

Beijing is Tehran's top customer for oil exports, which in recent years were hit by US and EU sanctions over Tehran's nuclear programme.

Trade between the two countries was worth US$52 billion in 2014. They did not give details of their goal of developing relations worth US$600 billion over the next decade.

According to Iranian media, more than a third of Iran's foreign trade is carried out with mainland China.

The two leaders issued a joint statement outlining a long-term "comprehensive strategic partnership."

The two countries agreed to enhance co-operation including in fossil and renewable energy, transportation, railways, ports, industry, commerce and services, said the statement, published by Mehr news agency. Mainland China has committed to "invest and finance upstream and downstream energy projects in Iran," it said.

The mainland "acknowledges Iran's constructive role in the fight against terrorism and maintaining peace and stability in the region," it added, while supporting Tehran's increased role in regional and international affairs.

Xi, accompanied by other mainland officials, also brought with him a large business delegation.

He was scheduled to meet later Saturday with Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Xi's tour, his first of the Middle East as mainland leader, has also taken him to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Riyadh and a number of Sunni Arab allies broke diplomatic ties with Iran this month after protesters angry over the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

In Cairo, Xi offered US$55 billion (S$78.63 bilion) in loans and investments to the Middle East, a region where mainland China wants to strengthen its economic presence.