Red Sea Crisis and the Houthi Agreement With Beijing and Moscow

The Houthis, a rebel group supported by Iran – have assured China and Russia that they will not carry out any attacks on their ships in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, according to a Bloomberg report. Discussions between representatives of the Houthis and Senior Chinese and Russian officials were held in Oman on this issue. Moscow and Beijing in return have promised ‘political support’ to the Houthis – this possibly includes support to the Houthis in international institutions. Both Moscow and Beijing had abstained from voting in favour of a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution, which came down heavily on attacks by the Houthis in the Red Sea. The other two countries, which abstained from voting were Algeria and Mozambique. The text of the resolution was drafted by the US and Japan. 

Houthi attacks

The Houthis began attacking ships, passing through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in November 2023. They have termed these attacks as an act of solidarity with the Palestinians. Earlier this month, the Houthis sunk a ship, True Confidence, and also killed three sailors –two Filipinos and Vietnamese, in a missile strike. In recent months, there has been a rise in attacks. 

An estimate 15% of maritime trade passes through the Red Sea. Attacks by the Houthis have disrupted global shipping and compelled ships to take far longer routes via the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa (there has been a significant drop in the volume of freight through the Red Sea). As a result of the current crisis, shipping costs and transportation times have witnessed a significant rise and core goods inflation is also likely to rise in the first half of 2024. The precise economic impact of these attacks can also be assessed in the coming months.

Back-channels between the US and Iran

Despite the strains between Washington and Tehran over several geopolitical issues, other than the latter’s support for the Houthis – both sides have carried on back channels to resolve the Red Sea crisis. In January 2024, indirect talks were held in Oman where Washington asked Tehran to prevail upon the Houthis to stop attacks on ships in the Red Sea. The US delegation was led by the White House’s Middle East adviser Brett McGurk and Biden administration’s Iran envoy Abram Paley, while Tehran was represented by Iranian deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani — also Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator.

During his recent Middle East visit, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken reiterated the point, that it was not in Iran’s interest to support the attacks. Said Blinken: “…we would like to see Iran exert the influence that it has, because it’s the primary supplier to the Houthis of weapons, of information, of technology.  We would like to see them tell the Houthis to stop.  Meanwhile, we and other countries have no choice but to try to defend the shipping and, as necessary, degrade the assets – the military assets – that the Houthis are using to continue to attack shipping.”

China’s role during the crisis

China has been critical of these attacks and expressed its concern. A significant percentage of China’s trade with Europe passes through the Suez-Canal.

Beijing has kept out of a US-led 20 nation patrol, Operation Prosperity Guardian — which seeks to facilitate safe movement of ships in the Red Sea. Beijing’s decision to keep out of the US-led maritime security initiative to guard the Red Sea and its recent agreement with Houthis clearly highlight the fact that China’s stance is different from the US on the Red Sea issue. It also underscores the fact that Beijing is unwilling to stick its neck out on complex geopolitical issues and shoulder global responsibility.

Russia which was impacted severely by US sanctions has benefited from the Houthi attacks, since the demand for using Russian rail for transportation of goods from Asia to Europe has risen significantly. Logistics companies using Russia’s rail routes have been careful to ensure that none of the freight originates from Russia or is travelling there (since this would be a violation of EU sanctions imposed on Russia after the Russia-Ukraine war). A Houthi delegation had visited Moscow in January 2024. Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam headed the delegation and met with Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to discuss the conflict in Gaza. 

While China and Russia may believe that they have secured their economic interests by reaching an agreement with the Houthis, continued uncertainty in the Red Sea will impact everyone. On the Red Sea issue, Beijing has tried to walk a tight rope between not sending the wrong message to the global community and not taking on the Houthis, it is clearly evident as discussed earlier, that Beijing in spite of its growing global influence is not willing to leverage the same when needed.

[Header image: A ship on the Red Sea, Aquaba, Jordan. Credit: IDS.photos, via Wikimedia Commons]

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

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