U.S. Calls on Beijing to Use Influence Over Tehran to Curb Rebel Strikes
China has privately pressed Iran in recent weeks to help restrain Yemen’s Houthi movement from attacking ships and obstructing flow of traffic in the Red Sea, according to two Iranian officials and two diplomats briefed on the exchanges.
The pressure from Beijing underscores global concern over the impact of attacks in the Red Sea, a vital global shipping route leading to the Suez Canal through which more than 10% of world trade passes. The world’s top importer China relies heavily on that route for its supply chains.
“The Chinese have been in touch at senior levels to say they think the Iranians have some influence to get the Houthis to calm down and back off from attacks in the Red Sea that are severely impacting trade flows”, said a Western diplomat briefed on the discussions.
Iran is the primary military backer of the Houthi movement, which has been battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since 2015 and stepped up attacks on vessels this year after a truce that had lasted since April expired.
Maritime Attacks Disrupt Key Shipping Route for China
The Red Sea connects Asia, Europe and Africa, with the Bab al-Mandeb and Suez Canal linking the Gulf region to the Mediterranean. Hundreds of tankers pass daily through the two chokepoints towards Europe and North America.
Attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf region have already choked supply chains, pushed freight costs to records and led shipping groups to divert vessels away from the troubled waters.
Maritime security in the area directly impacts China. About 11% of China’s total trade volume passes Bab al-Mandab Strait while 4.7% passes Suez Canal. Disruption around chokepoints can dent trade growth.
|% Trade Volume Through Bab al-Mandab
|% Trade Volume Through Suez Canal
Table showing percentage of China’s total trade volume passing through Bab al-Mandab Strait and Suez Canal annually from 2020-2022. Data from China’s General Administration of Customs.
United Nations and Chinese data also shows nearly 30% of global container throughput and nearly 25% of global shipping by tonnage go through Bab al-Mandab while approximately 9% of global shipping traverses Suez Canal each year.
U.S. Frustrated Over China’s Lack of Action
The U.S. administration has repeatedly asked Beijing over the last months to use its leverage to stop Houthi attacks in the Red Sea but China has been reticent so far in responding to the requests, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
Washington is frustrated over the lack of action from China, which has significant economic interests in the region and has a deep economic partnership with Tehran, experts said.
Earlier this month the Biden administration sent National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to meet senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Rome seeking Beijing’s support on the issue. But the meeting produced no public commitment.
China Calls for Restraint, Warns of Economic Impacts
China expressed deep concern this week over recent attacks in the Red Sea and called for restraint by all parties involved to avoid impacting trade flows and economic growth prospects.
At a regular press briefing on January 24, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin warned of wider economic impacts and appealed to the international community to avoid actions that could exacerbate regional tensions.
“The situation in the Red Sea, as an important channel of global trade, is closely watched by the international community. All parties need to exercise restraint to avoid undermining maritime safety and traffic in relevant waters, global industrial and supply chains, world economic growth and peoples’ livelihoods in the region.”
China remains one of the few powers potentially able to get the Houthis to tamp down strikes given its close economic ties and diplomatic relationship with Tehran. So far Chinese officials have limited their response to written statements.
“Clearly navigating these issues will require nuance given Iran’s ties with the Houthis, and China’s deep economic relations with Iran,” said Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran.
Iran Under Pressure As Attacks Increase
The Houthis acknowledged dozens of drone and missile attacks against coalition warships, tankers and the Abha International Airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia in the past month alone.
Crude oil prices also hit their highest level since before the Ukraine war over supply concerns stemming from the state of affairs in the Middle East.
Iran faces growing calls to help restrain Yemen’s rebels amid U.S. and Israeli threats to take unspecified action if the harassment in waters vital to global energy supplies does not stop.
While privately pressing Tehran to intervene, officials in Beijing have lambasted the U.S. and Western allies in public statements this week, accusing them of exacerbating tensions with increased military activity in the region.
China and Iran Already Cooperating to End Crisis
There have been some early signs and assurances given that Iran and its allies are working closely with China to wind down the crisis.
Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani flew to Oman on January 20 for talks that the Gulf Arab state later acknowledged included the situation in Yemen. Oman has become a traditional Middle East mediator and maintains good ties with Iran and China.
Two Iranian officials told Reuters earlier this week on condition of anonymity that while Iran provides rhetorical, political and military support to Yemen’s Houthis, it does not control their operations or planning and Houthi leaders would have to agree to curb attacks in the Red Sea.
Outlook Remains Uncertain As Attacks Persist
It remains unclear if Iran is able and willing to persuade the Houthis to stop disrupting traffic in the Red Sea. But there is consensus among experts that an expanding military confrontation would be counterproductive without support from Beijing.
China wields significant economic influence in the Middle East and maintains cordial ties with regional rivals. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia where he signed economic accords worth billions and Chinese commercial ships were attacked off the Yemeni coast.
While experts don’t foresee China playing an overt military role given its policy of non-interference, Beijing’s economic leverage makes it well-placed to help mediate a de-escalation if it chooses to engage more actively.
Much depends on cooperation between global powers as unchecked escalation risks spiraling out of control. But hopes for a return to calm have been dashed before as the region remains a tinderbox ready to ignite. The coming weeks could prove pivotal in steering events toward either a managed settlement or unchecked chaos.
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