Red Sea crisis tests China’s global ambitions

Hong Kong (CNN) — As Houthi rebels continue their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the deepening crisis is posing a new test for China’s much-vaunted ambitions to become a new power broker in the Middle East.

The attacks on one of the world’s most vital shipping routes disrupted global trade and raised fears of a wider regional conflict after nearly four months of war between Israel and Hamas.

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

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

With Beijing showing no desire to get directly involved in the crisis, the United States has tried to pressure China into demanding that Iran – which provides training, finance and equipment to the Houthis – stop attacks. Put pressure.

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

It also presents a diplomatic challenge for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who in recent years has highlighted “the contribution of Chinese wisdom to promoting peace and tranquility in the Middle East” as part of his initiative to offer an alternative to the security and order strategy. “Promised to do. by the west.

China’s response

Houthi rebels in Yemen began firing missiles and drones at ships in the Red Sea in mid-November in what they consider an act of solidarity with Palestinians. But many ships that have no connection to Israel have been attacked.

For weeks, China’s public response was remarkably muted. It did not condemn the Houthis, nor did its warships respond to distress calls from nearby ships that were attacked by the Houthis.

China also rejected 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 in the Gulf of Aden and a support base in nearby Djibouti .

Recently, when the United States and Britain launched military strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, Beijing became more vocal in expressing concern about the tensions.

He called for a halt to attacks on civilian vessels and “urged parties concerned to avoid adding fuel to the fire”, noting that the UN Security Council has never authorized the use of force by any country in Yemen. Is.

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

Since the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas, China has positioned itself as a champion of the Global South and an alternative to American power by expressing support for the Palestinian cause and criticizing Israel and the United States for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Have tried to present. ,

China Red Sea Crisis

Cargo ships wait in the Red Sea near the opening of the Suez Canal on March 29, 2021. (Credit: Sima Diab/The New York Times/Redux)

Beijing’s reluctance to deal with the Red Sea crisis reflects these geopolitical calculations.

Chaziza said, “China has no interest in joining the Western alliance led by the United States; such an action would strengthen the United States’ position as a regional hegemon and weaken China’s position in the region. “

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

“This is not the first time that we have asked China to play a constructive role. Beijing says they are raising it with the Iranians, and I think you’ve seen it in some press reports. But we certainly We’ll wait to see the results before commenting. Learn more about how effective we think it is, or whether we think they’re actually doing it.”

Citing Iranian sources, Reuters reported on Friday that Chinese officials in several recent meetings asked their Iranian counterparts to help rein in the Houthis or risk damaging trade ties with Beijing.

“China is basically saying, ‘If our interests are harmed in any way, it will affect our trade with Tehran. So “Tell the Houthis to exercise restraint.”

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

Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said last week that China had “actively de-escalated the situation from day one” and “has been in close contact with various parties and actively worked to de-escalate tensions in the Red Sea.” Have worked since.”

She Ibrahim Raisi

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi review an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing on February 14, 2023. (Credit: Yan Yan/AP)

under pressure

Although the Houthis say they will not attack Chinese or Russian ships, the crisis threatens China’s interests.

Like many global shipping companies, Chinese state shipping giants COSCO and OOCL diverted dozens of vessels from the Red Sea to a longer route around the southern tip of Africa, according to data compiled by Kuehne + Nagel, a Switzerland-based logistics company. These detours often add more than 10 days to the journey, causing delivery delays and increasing shipping costs.

San Francisco-based global logistics company Flexport says historically 90% of goods shipped from China to Europe went through the Red Sea, but now 90% of that traffic is detouring around Africa.

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

Pressure for action may also come from China’s regional partners.

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

“The notion that it is an emerging extra-regional power does not hold if it does not try to engage,” he said.

“The US-UK-led alliance does the heavy lifting while China watches. That is the evil eye. “Regional leaders probably view China as a paper tiger.”

Business disruption impacts all pockets. Egypt is losing millions of dollars a day due to reduced traffic in the Suez Canal at the northern end of the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia, which is pursuing peace talks with the Houthis after a nine-year war in Yemen, “can’t do anything directly without becoming a target of the Houthis, so it wants others to do something,” Fulton said.

This leaves China in a complex situation: It must strike a delicate balance between anti-US ally Iran and the Gulf states, China’s most important economic partners in the region.

global ambitions

Analysts say Beijing last year brokered a historic rapprochement between two former regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but stopping Houthi attacks could prove a difficult task for China.

“There was so much momentum around this idea that China was becoming a major diplomatic, political and security player,” Fulton said. But events following the war between Israel and Hamas “really demonstrated that China’s approach in the region is still largely driven by its economic interests, and it still has a very important role to play in those other areas.” Don’t have the will or ability.”

China has been Iran’s largest trading partner for the past decade and buys 90% of Iran’s oil exports. But the extent to which this can translate into influence will be a test of Beijing’s political capital.

“The reality is that China’s influence is limited to really influence 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 oil trade would be complex. This does not mean that China cannot cancel any deals to punish Iran or curb oil imports. may not reduce, but “this means it is not possible unless Chinese ships are explicitly attacked or the escalation continues.”

The escalating conflict in the Middle East has also raised questions over Xi’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), which Beijing has promoted as “Chinese solutions and wisdom to solve security challenges”.

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

“GSI is very policy-oriented, the idea is that economic solutions to insecurity will transform these problems,” Fulton said.

The concept was well accepted among regional governments that wanted economic growth and more foreign direct investment. And for some time things seemed to be moving in that direction.

In August, China’s top diplomat Wang declared that a “wave of reconciliation” was sweeping the Middle East with China’s help. But the story broke just a month later, when Hamas launched its attack on Israel, plunging the region into a new conflict.

Fulton said, “You can see what has happened since then, when there are real physical threats to security such as terrorism and attacks on global shipping, regulatory issues no longer matter. They require real, tough security solutions.” Is.”

— CNN’s Simone McCarthy contributed reporting.

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