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The Red Sea crisis tests China’s global ambitions

As Houthi rebels continue their assault on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the deepening crisis is posing a fresh test to China’s much-touted ambitions of becoming a new power broker in the Middle East.

The attacks on one of the world’s most important shipping routes have upended global trade and stoked fears of a wider regional conflict nearly four months into the Israel-Hamas war.

So far, China’s public response to the Red Sea crisis has been limited to calls for an end to the attacks on civilian ships and veiled criticism of US-led military operations against the Houthis – which analysts say has fallen well short of Beijing’s global aspirations.

“The cautious or hesitant Chinese response casts a heavy shadow on its ambitions to be a responsible global power,” said Mordechai Chaziza, a senior lecturer at the Ashkelon Academic College in Israel who specializes in China’s relations with the Middle East.

With Beijing showing no appetite of getting directly involved in the crisis, the United States has sought to prod China into pressuring Iran – which trains, funds and equips the Houthis – to rein in the attacks.

The stakes are high for China, the world’s largest trading nation. Most Chinese exports to Europe are shipped through the Red Sea, while tens of millions of tons of oil and minerals transit the waterway to reach Chinese ports.

It also presents a diplomatic challenge for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who in recent years has vowed to “contribute Chinese wisdom to promoting peace and tranquility in the Middle East” as part of his initiative to offer an alternative to the Western-led security order.

China’s response

The Houthi rebels in Yemen started firing missiles and drones at ships in the Red Sea in mid-November, in what they say is an act of solidarity with Palestinians. But many vessels with no link to Israel have been targeted.

For weeks, China’s public response was notably muted. It did not condemn the Houthis, nor did its warships respond to distress calls from nearby vessels under attack.

China also spurned a US-led multinational coalition to protect ships transiting the Red Sea, even though the People’s Liberation Army Navy has an anti-piracy task force sailing in the Gulf of Aden and a support base in nearby Djibouti.

More recently, as the US and Britain started military strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, Beijing became more vocal in raising concerns about the tensions.

It called for an end to the attacks on civilian ships and urged “relevant parties to avoid adding fuel to the fire,” noting that the United Nations Security Council has never authorized the use of force by any country in Yemen.

Chinese officials repeatedly stressed that the Red Sea crisis is a “spillover” from the conflict in Gaza, citing an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas as the top priority.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, China has sought to present itself as a champion of the Global South and an alternative to American power by voicing support for the Palestinian cause and criticizing Israel and the US for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Beijing’s reluctance to wade into the Red Sea crisis reflects these geopolitical calculations.

“China has no interest in joining a Western coalition led by the US; such an action would strengthen the position of the US as a regional hegemon and weaken the Chinese position in the region,” Chaziza said.

In meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok over the weekend, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan urged Beijing to use its “substantial leverage with Iran” to stop the attacks, a senior White House official told reporters Saturday.

“This is not the first time we’ve called on China to play a constructive role. Beijing says they are raising this with the Iranians, and I think you’ve seen that reflected in some of the press reporting. But we’re certainly going to wait to see results before we comment further on how effective we think — or whether we think they’re actually raising it.”

Citing Iranian sources, Reuters reported Friday that Chinese officials asked their Iranian counterparts at several recent meetings to help rein in the Houthis or risk harming business relations with Beijing.

“Basically, China says: ‘If our interests are harmed in any way, it will impact our business with Tehran. So tell the Houthis to show restraint,’” one Iranian official briefed on the talks told Reuters.

The Chinese government readout of the meeting between Wang and Sullivan did not mention the Red Sea.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said last week China had “actively deescalated the situation from day one” and had “been in close communication with various parties and worked actively to alleviate the tensions in the Red Sea.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony in Beijing on February 14, 2023. - Yan Yan/AP
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony in Beijing on February 14, 2023. - Yan Yan/AP

Under pressure

Although the Houthis have said they won’t target Chinese or Russian vessels, China’s interests have nevertheless been threatened by the crisis.

Like many global shipping firms, Chinese state-owned shipping giants COSCO and OOCL diverted dozens of ships from the Red Sea to a much longer route around the southern tip of Africa, according to data compiled by Kuehne + Nagel, a logistics company based in Switzerland. Such detours typically add more than 10 days to the journey, delaying deliveries and sending shipping costs soaring.

San Francisco-based global logistics firm Flexport says historically 90% of cargo shipped from China to Europe would have moved through the Red Sea, but now 90% of that traffic is taking a detour around Africa.

Due to the disruption, ocean freight rates from Shanghai to Europe surged more than 300% between November to January, according to the Shanghai Shipping Exchange – posing a big challenge to Chinese exporters in an already slowing economy.

The pressure to act may be coming from China’s regional partners too.

Jonathan Fulton, an Abu Dhabi-based senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said China’s inaction undermined its credibility with regional actors.

“The perception that it is an emerging extra-regional power doesn’t hold up if it doesn’t try to involve itself,” he said.

“The US-UK-led coalition does the heavy lifting, while China watches. That is a bad look. Regional leaders probably see China as a paper tiger.”

The disruption of trade hits everyone in the wallet. Egypt is losing millions of dollars per day from the reduced traffic at the Suez Canal at the northern end of the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia, which is in peace talks with the Houthis after nine years of war in Yemen, “can’t directly do anything without becoming a Houthi target so wants others to do something,” Fulton said.

That leaves China in a tricky position: it has to strike a delicate balance between Iran, an anti-US ally, and the Gulf countries, arguably China’s more important economic partners in the region.

Global ambitions

Last year, Beijing brokered a historic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two longtime regional rivals, but stopping the Houthi attacks could prove a thornier task for China, analysts say.

“There was so much momentum of this idea that China is becoming a major diplomatic, political and security actor,” Fulton said. But events since the Israel-Hamas war “really demonstrated that China’s approach to the region is still pretty much driven by its economic interests, and it doesn’t really have the willingness or the capacity to play a very significant role in those other areas yet.”

China has been Iran’s biggest trading partner for the past decade and buys 90% of Iran’s oil exports. But how much that can be translated into influence will be a test of Beijing’s political capital.

“The reality is that China has limited leverage to actually impact Iran’s behavior,” said William Figueroa, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

“Chinese investment in Iran is relatively low, and the politics and logistics of completely shutting down the oil trade would be complicated. It doesn’t mean that China can’t or won’t actually cancel any deals or reduce oil imports to punish Iran, but it does mean it’s unlikely unless Chinese ships are explicitly targeted or the escalation continues.”

The escalation of conflict in the Middle East has also raised questions over Xi’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), which has been touted by Beijing as “Chinese solutions and wisdom for solving security challenges.”

The initiative, launched by Xi in 2022, advocates an assembly of broad Chinese foreign policy principles, including “resolving conflicts through development and eliminating the breeding ground for insecurity.”

“The GSI is very normative driven, it’s this idea that economic solutions to insecurity will transform these problems,” Fulton said.

The concept was well received among regional governments that wanted economic development and more foreign direct investment. And for a while, things appeared to be moving in that direction.

In August, Wang, China’s top diplomat, declared that a “wave of reconciliation” was sweeping through the Middle East with the help of China. But that narrative was shattered only a little more than a month later, when Hamas unleashed its attack on Israel, plunging the region into renewed conflict.

“You see what’s happened since then, when there are actual material security threats, in the form of terrorism and attacks to global shipping, the normative stuff doesn’t count anymore. They need actual, hard security solutions,” Fulton said.

CNN’s Simone McCarthy contributed reporting.

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