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China’s Response to the Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea

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China Power | Security | East Asia

China’s Response to the Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea

A complex interplay of economic factors, limited military capabilities, and geopolitical dynamics shape China’s cautious response to the Red Sea crisis.

China’s Response to the Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea

The U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Laboon (DDG 58) approaches the Henry J. Kaiser-class fleet replenishment oiler USNS Kanawha (T-AO 196) for a replenishment-at-sea while operating in support of Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) in the Red Sea, Dec. 25, 2023.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Elexia Morelos

As the world’s largest trading country, China relies heavily on seaborne trade, with 95 percent of international trade conducted through sea lanes. Securing access to strategic ports and investing by varied degrees and ownership in maritime infrastructure projects has allowed China to strengthen its control over supply chains and ensure the smooth flow of goods, which is vital for its economic growth. 

The Red Sea is a critical maritime corridor linking Asia, Africa, and Europe. Around 10 percent of worldwide trade – and 40 percent of trade between Asia and Europe – travels through the Red Sea maritime corridor, highlighting its crucial artery for global commerce. The Red Sea is also a vital transit route for energy shipments from the Middle East and Africa. Its proximity to major energy producers and location between Asia and Europe makes it strategically significant for the global energy supply chain. China heavily relies on imported oil and gas, making it vulnerable to disruptions in chokepoints.

The Red Sea’s strategic location along China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the sea route that extends from South China to the Strait of Mule, the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa, the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, all the way to the Suez Canal) makes it a natural partner for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), offering connectivity and trade opportunities to Africa and West Asia. The Red Sea is a major gateway for Chinese products to enter African, European, Arab, and American markets due to its strategic location on the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, passing through the Suez Canal. Thus, its geographic location and economic potential make it a valuable region for China in pushing the BRI across the Middle East. China recognizes the importance of coastal logistics hubs in the Red Sea region and aims to establish a network of trade footholds, further strengthening its BRI presence.

The terrorist attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels (officially known as Ansar Allah),  specifically in the Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, threaten Chinese ships and have a harmful impact on Chinese companies’ commercial interests. However, Beijing’s response has been characterized by virtual silence, lacking significant condemnation or tangible military and diplomatic measures. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has abstained from participating in the U.S.-initiated task force (Operation Prosperity Guardian) to safeguard navigation in the region, and its warships have not heeded distress calls from attacked vessels.  

Once again, it becomes apparent that China faces limitations in pursuing its global aspirations when substantial engagement is required, particularly when such involvement contradicts its efforts to diminish U.S. influence in the Middle East. Despite the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group backed by Iran, posing a threat to regional stability and adversely affecting China’s economic interests, Beijing’s diplomatic and military influence fails to align with its rhetorical posture

In the ongoing global rivalry, China is positioning itself as a less responsible global power in the Red Sea crisis than the United States. Beijing prefers to remain silent, avoid a clear declarative stand, and refrain from taking concrete actions. Given the threat to shipping in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, China’s lack of action exposes its diplomatic rhetoric and initiatives, notably the Global Security Initiative (GSI), as empty slogans. China had explicitly attempted to connect the GSI with resolving conflicts in the Persian Gulf

Despite its efforts to propagate the narrative of the United States withdrawing from the region and eroding its alliances, thereby challenging Washington’s status as a reliable global security guarantor, the limitations of Chinese power become apparent. The Houthis’ attacks on shipping routes in the Red Sea highlight Beijing’s incapacity and lack of interest in shaping the security and stability of the region. Even when critical Chinese interests are at stake Beijing prefers to continue its reliance on the efforts of other countries.

China’s Response to the Red Sea Crisis

China traditionally follows a policy of non-interference in other sovereign states’ internal affairs and advocates for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to conflicts. According to its cautious and pragmatic approach to Middle East foreign policy, Beijing seeks to protect its economic interests while maintaining neutrality and avoiding potential risks to its broader diplomatic goals. Regarding the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, China’s response has typically been cautious and restrained. Over the last two years, China has supported United Nations Security Council resolutions that classify and condemn the Houthis as a terrorist group. However, there has been no formal Chinese condemnation of Houthi attacks within the last three months. Chinese authorities have refrained from mentioning the term “Houthis,” even in the context of an attack on a Chinese vessel.

Chinese diplomats called for peace but refused to condemn the Houthis or substantially contribute to efforts to advance peace. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said China was “deeply concerned” about the escalation in the Red Sea but remained noncommittal on taking any action. “We hope that all parties can play a constructive and responsible role to safeguard security and avoid any attacks against civilian ships, which is not good for international trade.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin did not explicitly mention the Houthis, who are responsible for a series of attacks on vessels traveling through the Red Sea in recent months: “China opposes attacks against civilian vessels. I believe all sides need to play a constructive and responsible role in safeguarding the security of shipping lanes in the Red Sea.”

In the U.N. Security Council, China expressed apprehension about regional instability. It has distanced itself from the narrow perspective of the United States and its allies, who characterize the escalation as a freedom of navigation crisis. Geng Shuang, China’s deputy permanent representative to the U.N., framed the situation as a direct consequence of Israel’s conflict with Gaza. He emphasized that any military response led by the United States could exacerbate instability not only in Yemen but also across the broader region. Despite abstentions from Russia and China, 11 members of the council voted on a resolution demanding Yemen’s Houthis end attacks on ships in the Red Sea and free the Japanese-operated Galaxy Leader and its crew. China’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. Zhang Jun saw in the resolution’s “ambiguities” a reason to fear an exacerbation of regional tensions.

Beijing also expressed concern over rising tensions in the Red Sea after the U.S. and U.K. carried out strikes on multiple Houthi targets inside Yemen. Zhang Jun, called on relevant parties (meaning both the United States and the Houthis) to play a “constructive and responsible role in easing tensions in the Red Sea.” Zhang added, “No country should misinterpret or abuse relevant provisions in this resolution to create new tensions in the Red Sea.”

At the same time, Zhang’s statement included a rare direct mention of the Houthis and a denunciation of their role in attacking civilian ships: “We call on the Houthis to abide by the provisions of the Security Council resolution and immediately stop its disturbances to the civilian vessels, and to respect the navigational freedoms of all countries in the Red Sea.” 

China’s Complex Calculations

The Houthi assaults in the Red Sea have affected the global economy, trade, and, by extension, Chinese commercial interests. Despite this impact, China’s reaction thus far has been notably weak, cautious, and ineffective. Why? 

Complex economic and political calculations influence China’s position. First, China’s trade, specifically, is unlikely to be severely affected by the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, instigating a dramatic shift in its position. The Houthis have ignored oil tankers so far, almost certainly avoiding targeting Chinese ships. Ships are raising signals to show their link with China to avoid being targeted as they venture through the Red Sea. 

From a purely economic cost-benefit calculation, there has been an increase in shipping costs and insurance premiums. However, they have not reached the levels observed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though the expense of transporting a standard 40-foot container from China to northern Europe has risen from $1,500 to $4,000, it remains considerably lower than the $14,000 recorded during the pandemic. China’s exports have been subdued since June owing to a lack of global demand, and they are anticipated to continue sluggishly until they rebound, which is expected before February.

While the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea could influence the cost of Chinese energy imports, so far the impact has been manageable. Approximately half of China’s crude oil imports come from the Middle East. After the U.S.-led airstrikes on multiple Houthi targets in Yemen, crude prices increased by about 4 percent, reaching around $78 per barrel, though still lower than the level of about $84 seen before the initial Hamas attack on Israel. Data released by Reuters showed that the passage of oil tankers had barely been affected.

Thus, while the Red Sea tensions put upward pressure on global oil prices, it will unlikely represent a severe shock to China’s energy security. That could change if the Hamas-Israel and Houthi conflicts escalate, leading to disturbances at the Strait of Hormuz in the southern end of the Persian Gulf. 

Overall, traffic through the Red Sea is down by more than 40 percent, disrupting global supply chains. Some of the world’s largest shipping operators have redirected their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa, delaying delivery times and adding 3,000-3,500 nautical miles (6,000km) to their route. Diverting the navigation routes of many shipping companies harms China, the world’s largest exporter and second largest importer (or third largest after the EU). Initially, there may be a shock and the possibility of parts shortages that could impede production. 

However, the global trading system is expected to adapt to the new reality soon, requiring Chinese manufacturers to prepare and strategize for extended wait times. While the crisis is anticipated to persist for several months, there is reassurance that global shipping has more capacity compared to the pandemic era. Lessons learned from that period have resulted in companies maintaining more inventory. Additionally, the disruption could push more traders to use rail networks, bolstering the overland portion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Thus, the direct impact of the Houthi attacks on China’s economy has been limited, although the longer the disruptions continue, the greater the repercussions might be.

Finally, China has limited ability to intervene militarily and politically and exert influence on the Houthis and Iran, and has little confidence in its ability in this sphere. Joining forces with the United States against the Houthis, meanwhile, could be interpreted as acceptance of Washington’s dominance. Moreover, in the past, the United States and its allies have struggled to persuade China to join the international task force conducting anti-piracy patrols in East Africa. 

The fact that other major Arab states chose not to be involved in the coalition and that there is still no U.N. mandate means that China sees no benefit in PLAN participation in a security operation against the Houthis. Beijing regards the U.S.-led task force, Operation Prosperity Guardian, as an opportunity to criticize Washington’s power in the region and assign responsibility and blame for escalating the situation. At the same time, China claims to behave responsibly by calling for stability and global peace.


China’s response to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea reflects its cautious approach, driven by economic and geopolitical considerations. As the world’s largest trading nation heavily reliant on seaborne trade, China’s strategic interests in the Red Sea, a critical maritime corridor, are significant. Despite Houthi attacks posing threats to Chinese ships and commercial interests, Beijing’s response has been characterized by silence, avoiding clear condemnation or tangible military involvement. China refrains from active participation in international efforts, such as the U.S.-initiated task force, to safeguard its interests while maintaining a non-interference policy. At present, the economic impact on China is calculated to be manageable, and geopolitical considerations, including rivalry with the United States, influence China’s stance. The complex interplay of economic factors, limited military capabilities, and geopolitical dynamics shape China’s cautious response to the Red Sea crisis.