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Why China won't fight the Hutus

Regardless of whether they target Chinese vessels directly or not, Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea threaten to undermine China's economic recovery. But viewed through the prism of rivalry with the US, the current turmoil in the Middle East is not bad news for China.

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

China's policy in the Middle East is determined by two factors: threat assessments and strategic calculations regarding the great power rivalry with the United States. And when it comes to the United States, China's approach boils down to three "no's": no cooperation, no support, no confrontation. This credo underlies China's decision not to confront the Iran-backed Houthis, who use drones and missiles to attack naval shipping lines in the Red Sea.

Chinese ships were not directly targeted in the Red Sea strikes, which came in response to Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza. The Houthis themselves say this approach will not change: judging by statements from their ranks in January, neither Chinese nor Russian vessels will be targeted unless they have ties to Israel. Nevertheless, these attacks negatively affect China's economic interests. And it is not just that China is now forced to avoid ties with Israel (the largest Chinese transport conglomerate COSCO has already had to suspend all deliveries to Israel due to security reasons).

Identification of ships (or the countries under whose flag they are registered) is not always easy. In addition, maritime transport related to Chinese interests could still become a target for the Hutus. Meanwhile, touring this zone is expensive. The Red Sea is one of the most important bottlenecks in global trade. If Chinese ships going to Europe have to go around the Cape of Good Hope instead of taking the traditional route through the Suez Canal, then the transportation time will increase from 26 days to 36 days and the price will increase significantly.

The extension of sea transport routes could lead to higher import prices, potentially triggering higher inflation in China. If oil prices rise, then the pressure on China's economy, which is already depressed, will increase. More broadly, prolonged disruptions to the maritime shipping system will hamper China's attempts to stimulate the economy through increased foreign trade.

Thus, Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea (whether directly targeting Chinese ships or not) could hinder China's economic recovery. And the situation could get much worse - if Iran gets even deeper involved in the conflict between the Houthis and the US-led coalition that is attacking them, the Strait of Hormuz will be in danger, which will then threaten China's energy supplies.

For now, however, China apparently does not perceive the threat posed by the Houthis as immediate or acute. Yes, Chinese officials are reportedly urging their Iranian counterparts to pressure the Houthis to halt their attacks. But although China has some influence on Iran, it cannot be said to control Iranian politics. In addition, Iran itself does not fully control the Houthis, although it is their main sponsor. And thus (contrary to prevailing views in the United States), China's ability to contain the Houthis diplomatically is limited.

And China is unlikely to do much more. Chinese strategists tend to view events in the Middle East through the lens of Sino-American relations, so in their opinion, instability in the region may not be so bad for China. Among Chinese experts, there is no shortage of frustration at seeing the US being forced to support Israel, at the cost of its strategic relations with Muslim countries in the region.

China will only benefit if its rival great power is dragged into the conflict in the Middle East, precisely at a time when it has already invested heavily in the Ukrainian war.

No, China doesn't seem to be planning to take advantage of American distraction by, say, moving toward Taiwan. But he enjoys the decline in US credibility and leadership. The longer the US stands by Israel, the more opportunities China will have to consolidate its ties with other Middle Eastern countries, and the more attractive its alternative approaches to regional security will become.

China will not under any circumstances join the US-led coalition against the Houthis, not only because of the first "no", but also because it interferes with its pursuit of a delicate balance between Israel and the Arab world, as well as between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. However, the fact remains that the Hutus' actions in the Red Sea are costing China dearly. So what are the Chinese options?

One of the options is organizing maritime escort for cargo ships. China has been doing this in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. However, the escort is sent to the Gulf of Aden based on the UN mandate in the fight against pirates - Security Council Resolution 1846. Without such a mandate, the Chinese are reluctant to undertake similar actions in the Red Sea (although they have recently started doing so).

China, however, has another, much simpler and politically most convenient answer to the current Middle East crisis. The key is to blame the chaos that followed the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas (the event that sparked the current conflict) on the failure of the US and Israel to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians and treat it as a precondition for any practical solutions to the current crisis.

China is aware that a two-state solution is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future, not least because it would fundamentally change the national security outlook for Israel and the Middle East as a whole. However, the main meaning of this position is probably not to achieve such a solution at all. The point is to weaken the US.

The author is a senior associate and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, USA

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024. (translation: NR)

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