China, the world’s biggest exporter, says it is deeply concerned about tensions in the Red Sea that have upended global trade by forcing many shippers to avoid the Suez Canal.
China has been in “close communication with all parties concerned and making positive efforts to de-escalate” the situation, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing on Wednesday.
“China calls for a halt to the harassment and attacks on civilian ships and urges all relevant parties to avoid fanning flames in the area and jointly ensure the safety and security of the route in the Red Sea,” Wang added. Notably, however, he refrained from ascribing blame or even mentioning by name the group behind the attacks.
Since November, the Iranian-backed Houthis have launched at least 34 attacks on shipping through the waterways leading up to Egypt’s Suez Canal, a vital route for energy and cargo coming from Asia and the Middle East onward to Europe.
The Houthis, a Shiite rebel group that has held Yemen’s capital Sanaa since 2014 and been at war with a Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s exiled government since 2015, link their attacks to the Israel-Hamas war. However, the ships they’ve targeted increasingly have tenuous links to Israel – or none at all.
“We are deeply concerned about the recent escalation of the Red Sea situation. The Red Sea is an important international trade route for goods and energy,” Wang said.
Wang also referenced the Gaza conflict, saying “the tension in the Red Sea is a manifestation of the spillover of the Gaza conflict.” Israel is conducting a major offensive in the Gaza Strip, its response to a vicious attack on Israeli civilians by Palestinian militant groups on October 7.
“The priority now is to end the fighting in Gaza as soon as possible to avoid further escalation and prevent the situation from getting out of control,” Wang continued.
“China is willing to work with all parties to cool down the situation and maintain security and stability in the Red Sea,” he said.
Some of the world’s largest container shipping companies and oil giant BP have been sending vessels on longer journeys around Africa that bypass the Red Sea.
At least 90 percent of the container ships that had been going through the Suez Canal are now rerouting around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, according to Drewry, a maritime research consultancy.
China stands to be disproportionately impacted by any disruptions to global shipping routes. The country exported more than $3.5 trillion in goods in 2022, the last year for which figures were available. That was about $1.5 trillion more than the United States, the world’s No. 2 exporter.
The cost to ship a standard 40-foot container from China to northern Europe has jumped from $1,500 to $4,000, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany. But that is still far from the $14,000 seen during the pandemic.
Shipping delays contributed to a 1.3 percent decline in world trade in December, reflecting goods stuck on ships rather than being offloaded in port.
In response to the growing impact on global trade, the United States and a host of other nations have created a new force to protect ships. Separately, the U.S. and its allies have been striking targets in Yemen that Washington has said are involved in the attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and were threatening U.S. military and commercial vessels in the Red Sea.
Wang said China believed the United Nations Security Council “has never authorized any country to use force against Yemen and calls for a genuine respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Red Sea coastal countries, including Yemen.”
China has maintained close ties with Iran, largely based on investment and oil imports, and last year hosted talks resulting in the restoration of Tehran’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
While seeking a peace-making role in the Middle East, Beijing has shied away from committing to any particular side, diminishing its credibility in the eyes of critics.