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China is mostly quiet on Houthi attacks in the Red Sea

Houthi fighters march during a rally of support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the U.S. strikes on Yemen, outside Sanaa, on Jan. 22.
AP
Houthi fighters march during a rally of support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the U.S. strikes on Yemen, outside Sanaa, on Jan. 22.

Updated February 23, 2024 at 10:45 AM ET

For months, Iran-backed Houthis have been attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea, threatening global supply chains, forcing vessels to reroute and driving up costs. The militia in Yemen says it's targeting ships with links to Israel in response to the country's invasion of the Gaza Strip, yet many of the targets have no connection to Israel.

The U.S. has mounted a coalition of more than 20 countries to help secure the Red Sea, which has taken action including retaliatory strikes against the Houthis and shooting down the militia's drones and missiles.

Noticeably absent from the coalition is China — even though it depends on the waterway to safely ship goods to Europe.

"The Red Sea is part of what Chinese analysts call their maritime lifeline," says Isaac Kardon, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who focuses on Chinese maritime affairs. "It is fundamentally important to the economic and political model that Chinese leaders are pursuing."

Despite its vital importance, Kardon says Beijing's response to the 4-month-old crisis engulfing the Red Sea has been largely muted.

Instead, the Chinese government is charting its own course, distancing itself from U.S. actions in the Middle East and even refusing to condemn the Houthis, while looking to capitalize on ties with key regional players to help solve the crisis.

China's expanded Middle East influence

Neil Thomas, a fellow on Chinese politics at the Asia Society research group, says China has been trying to enhance its influence in the Middle East for many years.

"Originally, it was basically just a relationship built off the oil trade," he says. "Now it's expanded to diplomatic cooperation, coordination in international affairs and much deeper economic and technological relationships."

Beijing does have some leverage in the region. It is thelargest buyer of crude oil exports from Iran. Accordingto Reuters, China lobbied Iranian officials to curb the activities of Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. Thomas says those talks appear to have had limited effect, so far.

"We have to bear in mind that China and Iran are close, but Iran has its own agenda," Thomas says. "But the Houthis are independent actors who also have their own agendas and haven't always listened to Iranians in the past."

Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank based in London, says Beijing's strategy for the Middle East is in line with its approach to other global conflicts.

U.S.-owned ship Genco Picardy came under attack from a bomb-carrying drone launched by Yemen's Houthi rebels in the Gulf of Aden, on Jan. 18.
Indian Navy / AP
/
AP
U.S.-owned ship Genco Picardy came under attack from a bomb-carrying drone launched by Yemen's Houthi rebels in the Gulf of Aden, on Jan. 18.

"That is to say, never taking a side ... do not get involved in the domestic affairs of another particular country," she says.

On the one hand, China has a very strong economic interest to restrain Iran, she says. "But on the other hand, I think there's the so-called noninterference principle that really [makes] Beijing hold it back."

China's hands-off approach has led some critics to call it a free rider. Its ships are passing through the Red Sea under the protection of the U.S. coalition, but when conflict began, it stayed quiet.

"It's definitely a seminal moment for China staking out a role as a great power player in the Middle East," says Kardon with the Carnegie Endowment. "And yet, when the region is in turmoil ... they are pretty passive. They're sitting around watching the United States perform this protection of free navigation that China depends on."

China urges de-escalation but is bogged down with economic woes

During a briefing in late January, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China was "concerned about rising tension in the Red Sea."

Beijing has maintained "close communication with all parties concerned and making positive efforts to de-escalate" the situation, he said. "We urge the cessation of attacks and harassment against civilian ships and urge all parties to stop fueling the tensions."

In January, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan prodded senior Chinese officials to join the coalition to battle the Houthis, with no sign of success.

China has beenbuilding up its blue-water navy. It has a history of cooperating with Western countries on anti-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa from its military base in Djibouti, not far from where the Houthis are targeting ships.

China's domesticeconomic woes are also a factor why it isn't getting involved militarily, according to Thomas.

"So far, it's focused a lot more on the economic side of that ledger than on the security side, basically, because the economic side is China's strength," Thomas says.

Yet if world trade continues to suffer because of Houthi attacks, analysts say, China may finally be compelled to take a larger role in resolving the crisis.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.