Since the Houthis began attacking commercial vessels in the Red Sea last year, China’s response has followed its established pattern of apparent non-intervention. However, unlike other countries, Chinese ships seem to be enjoying greater freedom and security when passing through the area. This seems to be due to several factors, including China’s relationship with the Houthis since 2016. Still, there are obvious limits to this approach, the extent of which will become more apparent as the conflict progresses.
China appears to be uniquely shielded from disruption in the Red Sea. Around 20 percent of the world’s cargo has been rerouted since attacks began in November, with major shipping firms amending their services in the area. This includes Chinese giant COSCO and Hong Kong-based OOCL (a ship belonging to which was hit by a drone attack on December 3). However, since then, media have reported that Chinese vessels are experiencing less disruption. In fact COSCO has made at least a dozen safe passages there in recent weeks. In recognition of this, a senior Houthi official said on 19 January that the group will grant safe passage for Russian and Chinese vessels, prompting several Chinese operators to redeploy their ships to the area.
There are a few reasons behind the special treatment offered to Chinese ships by the Houthis. Geopolitically, the Houthis are primarily attacking countries that they perceive as directly supporting Israel, and that they have long perceived as their adversary, such as the United States. In this case, Beijing’s policy of non-intervention and its self-proclaimed role as a peaceful mediator puts it in a unique position to refrain from any direct intervention or endorsement while enjoying upsides, irrespective of the outcome.
Second, China has maintained relatively complex ties with Iran. And despite this relationship facing many challenges and being in no way clear-cut as often presented, Tehran still perceives Beijing as one of its main allies on the international scene (and especially its main oil importer).
Lastly, and maybe also as a result of its ties with Iran, China has its own history of engagement with the Houthis, which is tied to the conflict in Yemen. And while details around these links remain nebulous, this relationship an important factor to consider when analyzing China’s behavior in the Red Sea.
China’s ties to the Houthis go back to 2016 and were primarily developed in the context of war in Yemen. Beijing was long on the diplomatic periphery of the issue. However, for a period, China briefly attempted to facilitate talks with various sides, including the Houthis. This was done involving the Chinese special envoy to the Middle East, Gong Xiaosheng, as well as China’s former ambassador to Yemen, Tian Qi. Such efforts culminated in a 2016 visit by the Houthi delegation to Beijing.
After this period, China’s position seems to have prioritized Saudi Arabia, which was actively fighting against the Houthis. Still Beijing has maintained contact with the Houthis, as seen in communication between its Ambassador to Yemen Kang Yong and Muhammad Ali al-Houthi, for instance, in 2022.
That said, China’s relations with the Houthis and the intentions behind its outreach remain unclear. Even during the 2016 period, statements by Chinese officials regarding this issue were very limited at best, including around the Houthi visit to Beijing. China’s interests in Yemen remain multifaceted, focusing on number of issues (such as investment and development of the Port of Aden), which is probably the main reason why Beijing does not want to alienate any party. Aden is controlled by the internationally recognized Yemeni government, not the Houthis’ rival regime.
Over the past year the Chinese acting ambassador to Yemen, Shao Zheng, has seemingly intensified his activities in the country, focusing on investment.
Despite the seeming protection enjoyed by the Chinese ships in the Red Sea, there are signs of strong limits to Beijing’s ties with the Houthis and its overall attitude toward the conflict. Although not being directly impacted, China is still heavily reliant on the Red Sea for its exports carried by foreign ships. In addition, its domestic economic slowdown represents a persistent domestic threat in the event of a global recession and renewed inflation. This suggests Beijing probably does not view the current crisis as a favorable scenario, although it has refrained from any direct action.
Indeed, China’s outreach to the Houthis remains substantially limited, particularly when compared with other similar groups such as the Taliban. In comparison, since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, China has been able to achieve major concessions from the Taliban such as renegotiations of stalled projects (such as the Mes Aynak mine).
The more hands-off approach in China’s relationship with the Houthis is likely also because Beijing always perceived ties with the Houthis through the lens of its relationship with Iran. Indeed just on January 26 Reuters reported that China has been pressuring Iran to “rein in” the attacks in the Red Sea. If confirmed, such a development would only support the existence of limits to Beijing’s relationship with the Houthis and call into question the extent to which it can yield any credible influence over the group.