The United States has launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to address security challenges to free navigation in the Red Sea’s Strait of Aden. Without wasting time, Iran reacted by announcing similar strikes near the Strait of Gibraltar using Algerian proxies.
It all started a few days ago when the Houthis attacked American and Israeli ships near Aden. The Chinese ships were close by, but despite their stated goal of combating sea-bound piracy and terrorism, they didn’t stop the Yemenis from attacks.
China has regularly deployed PLA Navy Marine Corps Special Operation Forces (PLANMC-SOF) and vessels to patrol the Gulf of Aden since 2008. In 2017, PLA-SOF captured a hijacked freighter from Somali pirates near Aden. However, by refusing to respond to Houthi attacks, China may have jeopardized its claim to be a responsible great power.
In response to China’s indifference, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met PRC Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and reiterated that all nations had an obligation to prevent threats to maritime security. Politico, citing Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, claimed that China has rejected the US call to join Operation Prosperity Guardian against the Houthis. China’s silence suggests that Beijing has a sinister plan to weaken the United States position in West Asia.
According to Xiao Yunhua, a professor at the Peoples Liberation Army National Defense University, Yemenis have done China a huge favor by challenging American sea power. Dr. Xiao Yunhua works for China’s highest military education institution, which is presided over by Xi Jinping, the communist party’s general secretary.
Florida Rep. Cory Mills believes that the Houthis are undeniably a part of the larger geopolitical agenda that aids China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea to undermine global currency and the Western hemisphere’s supply chain. According to Dr. Yunhua, the Houthi threat to international shipping lanes presents an opportunity to revitalize BRI as more goods would travel over land between China and Europe.
The pro-regime Iran Observer claims that Houthis deliberately avoid targeting Chinese, Russian, and Iranian cargo. According to the website Marine Traffic, the number of Chinese cargo ships in the Red Sea has actually increased since the Houthis began targeting vessels.
When it comes to maritime defense, Indians do not fare as well as the Chinese. On December 22, the M/V Chem Pluto, which was carrying crude oil from Saudi Arabia to India, was hit by a drone near the Indian port of Porbandar.
The attack is thought to have been launched from an Iranian vessel. A few hours later on the same day, Houthis used a one-way drone to attack the India-flagged M/V SAIBABA. The vessel caught fire but there were no casualties.
Similarly, in November, Houthis tracked and captured an India-bound Israel-linked vessel despite the fact that its geolocation tracker was turned off. The Houthis used a Soviet-era helicopter to force the vessel to dock near the Yemeni port of Al-Hudayah. Surprisingly, an Iranian vessel with advanced tracking capabilities was allegedly spotted in the area at the same time.
The Gaza war has left a strategic void in the Middle East, which China intends to fill. This fixation is compelling China to increase its criticism of Israel. China, which regards Israel as a member of the Western hegemonic bloc, sympathizes with Arabs because alienating Israel would be less damaging to China’s strategic interests than estranging all Arab nations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). China, like Iran, is concerned about warming relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which could bolster IMEC’s success.
Many countries condemned the October 7 attack, but China was not one of them. The growing ties between Iran and China have resulted in Chinese indifference to Hamas-led kidnappings and rapes of Israeli women and children. Congresswoman Ashley Hinson recently stated that the Chinese Communist Party used the death and destruction in Israel to gain favor with Iran by supporting Hamas terrorists. She also urged the US government to hold Chinese communists accountable for sowing discord in America.
On November 30, China issued a five-point position paper demanding an immediate cease-fire from Israel. On December 16, China’s deputy foreign ministers reiterated his government’s support for the ceasefire. As expected, the minister did not condemn Hamas for taking hostages or the Houthis for attacking commercial sea lanes.
Even though the conflict has resulted in four deaths, six injuries, and the disappearance of two Chinese citizens, the state-run Chinese media opted to dub Hamas’ attack as an indigenous crusade against decolonization, white supremacy, and apartheid. The Chinese government has refrained from highlighting these casualties in order to avoid jeopardizing relations with Arabs in general and Hamas in particular.
China has a long history of encouraging Pakistani terrorists to engage India in order to divert New Delhi’s attention away from issues in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Zhuang-Guangxi. It is now replicating this well-honed strategy to prop up both Hamas and the Houthis in order to create a schism between the West and the Muslim world.
The Chinese Communist Party established relations with the Houthis in 2011. After Iran and Syria, China is the third country to recognize the Houthi government in northern Yemen. In December 2016, a Houthi delegation visited Beijing in order to strengthen ties. The Houthis are said to possess hundreds of Chinese rocket-propelled mines and anti-ship missiles, as well as the short-range sea-skimming Mandab missiles.
Houthis signed an agreement in May this year with China’s Anton Oilfield Services Group to invest in oil exploration in Yemen. China’s growing ties with the Houthis indicate that Beijing is unlikely to help the West block weapons supplies or end Houthi-control over northern Yemen.
China has long-term plans in the Red Sea and Mediterranean, positioning itself as an alternative to the US. To our dismay, both Islamists and the ‘enlightened’ woke community see Chinese communists as a hope for oppressed people’s emancipation, social justice, and resistance against institutional racism and unjust global order.
The majority of Arab-Muslims who have little knowledge or concern for dismal affairs in Tibet and Xinjiang believe China’s hollow rhetoric about inclusion, diversity, and equitable growth. Without understanding how Chinese predatory economic projects fortify and deepen control at the expense of the recipient’s sovereignty, they fantasize about China playing the necessary role in restoring stability and sovereignty to their countries. This has also led the majority of Muslims to depict China as a regional peace enabler and guarantor, and one that can help end political impasses and wars in the MENA.
China is actively courting countries facing economic challenges and uses the bargain of unsustainable debt as an anchor to permanently extend its naval footprint along strategically important routes in the Red Sea. This year, Xi Jinping invited Eritrea’s president to Beijing, where he thanked the Chinese Communist Party for its vital assistance in achieving Eritrea’s independence and liberation. Eritrea’s president warned that any attempt to limit or suppress China’s rise would fail. According to Yusuf Unjhawala, an Indian defense analyst, China is presenting its acquisition of European ports as an investment to boost trade, but its motives are strategic. It could soon declare itself an Atlantic state, just as it considers itself a near Arctic state with unwavering stakes.
As Palestinians and Houthis increasingly engage with Israeli and Western forces, China’s plans to take center stage in the Middle East appear to be becoming a reality. Yemen, like Djibouti, has the potential to become an important hub for China’s massive investment in strategic infrastructure development. Access to Yemeni ports could bolster China’s ambitious maritime Belt and Road Initiative and ensure control over global trade routes. China sees securing a stake in the post-war reconstruction of Yemen as a financial boon. In the world of strategic hedging and balancing, Iran is aggressively assisting China in securing the Yemeni market. Given China’s growing clout in global decision-making, Iran would like Beijing to support its widely contested uranium enrichment program.
China’s trade volume with Arab countries reached $330 billion in 2021, making it the Middle East’s most important trading partner. China has strengthened security ties with Arab states in recent years, signing strategic cooperation agreements with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others. China is a significant supplier of weapons to the Gulf region, including military drones.
To date, China has made a number of eye-catching diplomatic moves to increase its political influence in the MENA. This includes Iran-Saudi Arabia mediation, and hosting the China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit. In January of this year, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Turkey, and Iran met in Beijing, where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a new regional order for the MENA with a reduced role for the US.
Yi emphasized that the people of the Middle East should be the masters of their own land, and that foreign patriarchy and interventions must be countered in order for the MENA’s sufferings, chronic unrest, and conflicts to end. While blaming the US for all regional problems, China is taking a more assertive stance in order to create rift between Washington and its regional partners. This is consistent with China’s behavior in other regions, such as South Asia, where China has attempted to use pressure points to disrupt relations between India and its allies. Furthermore, China’s increasing encirclement of West Asia impedes the US’ focus on the Indo-Pacific, with growing disadvantages for Taiwan, ASEAN, and other QUAD members.
The rise of China in the Middle East has emboldened adversaries of the West, and supporters of a two-state solution should be concerned about the potential threats posed by a sovereign Palestine with naval ports near the Suez Canal. The Palestinians would not think twice to give China control of their military bases once they achieved independence. Control over the Suez Canal, the 18-mile-wide Strait of Aden, and the 30-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz gives China an absolute advantage over the US as it negotiates navigational security through the Malacca Strait to South China Sea.
Jakub Grygiel writes in his article “The Benefits of Having an Enemy” that before competing with and defeating enemies, one should try to benefit from them. Henry Kissinger, the renowned American strategist, who died last month, tried to act along those lines and in the process created a Frankenstein out of China, which is currently threatening American security, attacking international financial and democratic institutions, and competing with the West for dominance in space and the oceans.
Thanks to diplomats like Kissinger, the age of great power rivalry and competition has returned.
Senge Sering is the President of Gilgit Baltistan Institute in Washington D.C.