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Why China Won’t Fight the Houthis

Whether they target Chinese vessels directly or not, attacks on Red Sea shipping by Houthi rebels threaten to undermine China’s economic recovery. But, viewed through the lens of its rivalry with the US, the current turmoil in the Middle East is not bad news for China.

WASHINGTON, DC – Chinese policy in the Middle East is shaped by two factors: China’s threat perceptions and its strategic calculus regarding its great-power competition with the United States. And when it comes to dealing with the US, China’s approach comes down to three “nos”: no cooperation, no support, and no confrontation. This credo underlies China’s decision not to push back against the Iran-backed Houthis as they carry out drone and missile attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes.

The Red Sea attacks – a response to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza – have not directly threatened Chinese ships, and the Houthis insist this will not change: neither Chinese or Russian vessels will be targeted, a senior Houthi official declared last month, as long as they are not connected with Israel. But the attacks will still affect China’s economic interests, and not only because of the need to avoid links with Israel. (COSCO, China’s largest shipping conglomerate, has already been forced to suspend all shipping to Israel, owing to security concerns.)

The identification of ships (or their flag countries) is not always straightforward, and shipping that affects China’s interests can still be targeted. But avoiding the area is costly. The Red Sea is one of the most sensitive chokepoints for world trade. If Chinese ships heading to Europe must circle around the Cape of Good Hope, rather than following the traditional route through the Suez Canal, a 26-day journey grows to 36 days and adds significantly to costs.