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.
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.