Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gestures during a press conference held on the sideline of the National People's Congress at the media center in Beijing, Wednesday, March 8, 2017. China on Wednesday proposed that North Korea could suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt in joint military drills conducted by the U.S. and South Korea. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein) Image Credit: AP

Beijing: Describing China as a friend to both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Wednesday he hopes both countries can resolve their differences through talks, ahead of a visit by the Saudi king to China.

Wang said China welcomes Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s visit to China. He did not give a date, but diplomatic sources in Beijing say it is likely to be once China’s annual parliamentary session has wrapped up next Wednesday.

“We hope that Saudi Arabia and Iran can resolve the problems that exist between them via equal and friendly consultations,” Wang said at his annual news conference on the sidelines of parliament.

“China is friends with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. If there is a need, China is willing to play our necessary role,” he added, without elaborating.

Last year China also offered support for Yemen’s government, which is backed by a Saudi-led Arab coalition in a war against the Iranian-aligned Al Houthi movement that controls much of the country.

China has had to tread a careful line, though, as it also has close relations with Iran.

President Xi Jinping visited both Saudi Arabia and Iran in January last year.

In January, Chinese warships toured the Arabian Gulf for the first time in six years signaling Beijing’s desire to play a bigger role on the global stage.

Three Chinese vessels, including a guided-missile destroyer warship, arrived in Qatar’s capital Doha following a visit to the Saudi port city of Jeddah, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

China’s navy regularly tours the world and its ships patrol off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia as part of international anti-piracy operations.

Visits to Gulf Arab states, where both the US and Britain have naval bases, are less common.

China’s navy visited Iran for the first time in 2014 to take part in joint naval exercises.

Beijing relies on the Middle East for oil but has tended to leave Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Britain, France and Russia.

However, China has been trying to get more involved, especially in Syria peace efforts, and has taken tentative steps over the Yemen crisis too.

A senior Chinese diplomat said on Monday that Beijing could be forced to assume a role of world leadership if others step back from that position after US President Donald Trump pledged in his first speech to put “America first”.

King Salman began a month-long Asian tour late February to build ties with the world’s fastest growing importers of Saudi oil and promote investment opportunities, including the sale of a stake in its giant state firm Saudi Aramco.