China in the Red Sea

Karam Said, Tuesday 30 Jan 2024

Rather than making shipping safer, the US-led military responses have intensified tensions in the Red Sea, reports Karam Said

China in the Red Sea


China is one of the largest economies to have been impacted by the interruption in maritime traffic in the Red Sea. The crisis has affected both its imports of oil from the Middle East and its exports to Europe and the Red Sea. According to the Shanghai Shipping Index, the costs of containerised freight have risen to their highest level since September 2022 due to the extra costs of having to reroute ships around the Cape of Good Hope.

The joint US-UK aid strikes against locations and infrastructure of the Ansarullah (Houthi) movement in Yemen have aggravated the situation, driving risks and costs up further.

Oil prices have also increased as a result of the Red Sea crisis. This also hits Beijing hard as one of the largest importers of oil from the Middle East. Oil prices, too, are likely to climb further against the backdrop of the escalating US-Houthi conflict and the growing militarisation of the crisis in the Red Sea since US President Joe Biden launched the so-called Guardian of Prosperity coalition in December. Although this multinational force was initially tasked with protecting shipping, its tactics have since shifted to an offensive footing.

This adds to the destabilising factors that naturally impact China’s investments in the region in the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative and growing bilateral relations in the region.

Naturally, Beijing shares the growing anxiety among many countries, particularly in the Arab region and the Global South, that the US-led actions are fuelling hostilities in this region and driving up temperatures around volatile fault lines, heightening the risks of widening the scope of conflict and warfare.

All the foregoing concerns help explain China’s increasingly active diplomatic efforts to cool regional tensions, encourage dialogue, and promote political instead of military solutions to the crisis. In this spirit, in January, China urged the US and UK to exercise restraint in their attacks against the Houthis in Yemen. On 13 January, in a UN Security Council emergency session on the situation in the Red Sea, China’s permanent representative to the UN Zhang Jun noted that the UNSC had not authorised the use of force against Yemen. Warning that the region is “on the brink of extreme danger,” he said that “what is needed most of all is calm and restraint to prevent further expansion of the conflict.”

On 15 January, following a meeting with the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed the importance of the safety of maritime navigation in the Red Sea. He called for an end to the attacks on civilian ships and warned of the danger of the spillover from the conflict in Gaza.

Wang Yi also met with Arab League Secretary Ahmed Abul-Gheit the same day on the sidelines of an Arab League session on the conflict in Gaza.  In a joint statement, the two sides expressed their deep concern over the escalating situation in the Red Sea. They stressed the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yemen while ensuring the safety of international commercial routes in the Red Sea, which is crucial to international peace and security.

Beijing has made it clear on several occasions that the situation in the Red Sea cannot be seen independently of the war on Gaza and that reducing tensions in the Red Sea is intimately connected with putting a stop to Israel’s violations of international law in Gaza and diplomatic efforts to generate a favourable climate for the resumption of negotiations to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this regard, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Arab League Secretary-General Abul-Gheit have called for a broader, more inclusive, and more effective international peace conference to promote the two-state solution leading to the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state within a specified timeframe.

As it acts to reduce tensions, Beijing has also taken advantage of the US-led strikes against the Houthis to undermine Washington’s international prestige and its credibility as a reliable partner. Beijing is casting itself as the alternative and a counterweight to the US’ strategic and economic influence in the Middle East as it works to promote conditions and relations conducive to escalating its Belt and Road Initiative.

China has harshly criticised the US-UK for pouring fuel on the fires in the region through their military offensives against the Houthis. However, it is clearly aware that Washington’s mishandling of Middle East crises is likely to push this region’s countries towards China and Russia. Thus, as it warns of the dangers of the US’ recklessness and its one-sided approach to the war on Gaza, Beijing presents itself as a “major responsible party” which will “continue to take an impartial stand,” as Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning put it.

As concerned as China is over the adverse impacts of the Red Sea crisis on its economic and strategic interests, it has made it a point to contrast its policy to that of the West. It has frequently stressed the need to de-escalate and to use soft power in resolving international problems, as opposed to Washington’s kneejerk inclination to turn to hard power. This is among the reasons why China rejected Washington’s invitation to join the “Guardian of Prosperity” coalition which it subsequently accused of making the situation worse. This may also help explain the growing urgency behind China’s drive to promote multilateral solutions to the Middle Eastern crisis within the framework of international law.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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