China’s Gamble on Houthi Attacks and Piracy

The ongoing Israel-Hamas War is quickly spiraling from a local conflict to a regional and now global one. Iranian-funded and armed proxies, such as the Houthis and Hezbollah, are also engaging Israel, with the former attacking commercial shipping.

The spillover towards commercial shipping, which directly affects the global economy, doesn’t just affect Israel or the West, but Eastern states, such as China.

China, which directly negotiated a peace settlement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is currently staying idle to Ansar Allah’s ship seizures and attacks. Despite wanting to become the new top player on Earth, Beijing’s lukewarm response is puzzling and calculating—but China’s stance can also backfire on them.

Ongoing Houthi Piracy and Attacks in the Red Sea

During the height of the Israeli war in Gaza, a war declared to destroy Hamas after the brutal October 7th Attacks, Ansar Allah, which controls most population centers in Yemen, declared war on Israel.

Failing to achieve any damage to Israel through ballistic missile and drone strikes, the Houthis are now directly targeting commercial vessels in the Red Sea. Ansar Allah’s goal is to try to strangle Israel’s economy and, if not, the global market in hopes Western states withdraw support for Tel Aviv and force a ceasefire in Gaza.

Considering the numerous acts of piracy in the Red Sea, the United States Fifth Fleet, supplemented by various allied nations, announced Operation Prosperity Guardian to deter Houthi attacks. A noticeable country that has not joined the fray is the People’s Republic of China, which has a vested interest in regional commercial shipping.

Ansar Allah is an Organization China Vouched For

China’s peace rapprochement policy in the Middle East not only included Iran and Saudi Arabia but also the Houthis in Yemen. Ansar Allah and affiliated militias have fought the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen for the past decade, which caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes in modern history.

By opening negotiations between Riyadh and Tehran, Beijing also vouched for a permanent ceasefire for the Houthis, which control almost all the major population centers in Yemen, including the capital of Sanaa.

Now that the Houthis are once again breaking the provisions of the ceasefire, engaging in piracy, and firing ballistic missiles across other countries’ airspace, such as Saudi Arabia, the delicate Chinese-backed ceasefire and peace deal is now teetering on the edge of the cliff.

By China Staying Idle, Beijing’s Reputation Diminishes

The People’s Republic is one of the forefront nations directly intertwined with the global economy. Wanting a foothold near the Red Sea to secure their interests, Beijing locked a landmark deal, making Djibouti their only overseas military base thus far.

China’s regional outreach extends to not only the Middle East but the Horn of Africa as well. Already securing major deals with Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Egypt, Ethiopia, and others, the PRC cannot afford to stay idle as their regional partners continue to remain within firing range of the Houthis’ vast arsenal.

China is staying idle while historical rivals such as America and Britain are taking charge of anti-piracy, making China look weak. In a vision to eclipse the US militarily and economically, the more the Houthis continue a chokehold on international maritime trade, the more the Chinese economy and regional influence will dissipate.

Is the PLA Collecting Combat Data from the Houthi-American Confrontation?

China’s seemingly neutral stance on Houthi piracy could influence the overall People’s Liberation Army strategy. The main goal of the PLA is to match and eventually eclipse American military capabilities. However, the Chinese army still falls short in force projection and air and naval warfare.

The US Navy, which has already engaged Ansar Allah defensively through interceptions and anti-piracy, is gaining valuable experience in drone and ballistic missile defense for any future conflicts with adversaries. Behind the curtains, China is gaining knowledge as well.

Valuable combat data and satellite gathering against the US Carrier Strike group could be taking place by Beijing, as China’s massive, short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missile program is already a considerable danger for America and its allies in the Indo-Pacific.

If the Israeli invasion of Gaza were to escalate into a regional war, China would sit idly while the US would most likely directly intervene. An American intervention would also benefit China as Beijing could play the ‘peacemaker’ that attempts to stop escalation while simultaneously gaining experience by studying US military operations.

Another factor in China’s cavalier stance in the conflict includes the ongoing purges by Xi Jinping against top military officials. Reports have circulated that the Chinese military is faltering in Xi’s expansion plans, and with ongoing corruption that has degraded the PLA’s navy and rocket arsenal, Beijing may feel too exposed to force project—for now.

China’s gamble on the Houthis’ erratic behavior can backfire if tensions continue to escalate. Wanting to become the ‘new man in charge,’ Beijing has done little to mitigate a conflict its economy could suffer from.

[Photo by Henry Ridgwell, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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