RIYADH, Jan. 20 (Xinhua) -- China and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) announced here that they are committed to working closely to conclude a comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) within 2016.

"China and the GCC will meet each other halfway and make concerted efforts ... to reach a high-standard FTA by the end of this year," Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng told reporters on Wednesday.

In a joint press release on Tuesday, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and the GCC Secretariat said China and the GCC resumed their FTA talks on Sunday and "substantively concluded in principle the negotiations on trade in goods" on Tuesday.

The two sides added that they have decided to accelerate the negotiation process and hold the next round of talks in the second half of February.

The announcement came as Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Riyadh for the first state visit to Saudi Arabia by a Chinese head of state in seven years.

During Xi's talks with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Tuesday, the two leaders welcomed the restart of the China-GCC FTA talks, saying they were "delighted" to see the substantive progress that has been made.

They also agreed to establish the FTA as soon as possible.

China and the GCC, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, began their FTA talks in July 2004, and the process was suspended in 2009.

Gao explained that the two sides had actually reached an agreement in 2009 on concluding the negotiations on the market access of 97 percent of commodities within the framework of the trade in goods.

Yet due to various reasons back then, particularly the changes on the international market, the GCC halted all its ongoing FTA talks with 17 countries and regional organizations, added the minister.

The GCC Ministerial Council decided in December 2015 to restart the FTA talks with China individually, Gao recalled, saying that "China welcomes and highly appreciates that."

"It is a major move by the GCC to strengthen the strategic cooperative partnership with China, and also an important decision to further boost the all-round cooperation between the two sides," he said.

The six-member bloc is China's largest source of oil imports, and China is the GCC's eighth largest trading partner, according to the minister.

China and the GCC have established a strategic dialogue mechanism, under which three rounds of talks have been held to date.

Approved by:MINISTRY OF COMMERCE,PRC     Supported by:China International Electronic Commerce Center