China’s Middle East Diplomacy: Navigating Peace and War in Yemen

China’s Middle East Diplomacy: Navigating Peace and War in Yemen

30 Jan 24
Posted by: Gwenna Herd
Message from the Editor

Courtesy of the Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre: The conflict in Yemen has renewed the need for maritime security in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and has demonstrated both the reach of China as an emerging Middle Eastern player, but also the limits of the PRC’s diplomacy. An increasingly destabilizing Iran raises questions about where other regional and international actors will ultimately align. A 5 minute read.

The war in Yemen, characterised by proxy fighting, the role of Western intervention and counter-terror operations, and a growing humanitarian crises, was recently subject to a fragile ceasefire, negotiated between Saudi Arabia and Iranian officials in China last year. Chinese mediation has significant implications for the Middle East and the rest of the world, and is a growing factor now, given the ongoing Houthi attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea.

The war in Yemen is long-established and multifaceted. Since 2014 (when Houthi insurgents seized the capital, Sana’a), the war has taken on various dimensions, endured countless interventions from all corners of the globe, and has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Deeply intertwined with religious and ethnic impetuses, the war is fuelled by ongoing and unresolved regional disparities, fear, and competing claims to oil resources and power. The opposing players consist of ‘the coalition’ (the internationally recognised Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, the US and the UK) and the Houthis (backed by Iran).

Although Iran continues to deny involvement, the Houthi insurgents’ growing strength, both in numbers and supplies, heavily indicates a degree of partnership; Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi’s Ansar Allah movement is a recognised element of the Iran-aligned ‘Axis of Resistance’. From a US perspective, this link justified Western intervention in Yemen; with growing fears of Iran’s ties to Al Qaeda, counter-terror operations were initiated by President Obama and largely condoned by the international community.

Subsequent to the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October 2023, this instability ashore has now spilled into the maritime littoral with Houthi attacks on international shipping. Consequently, shipping companies and authorities have diverted vessels away from the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal, sending them instead around the Cape of Good Hope rather than risking the Red Sea. Houthi forces have now escalated to directly attacking US Navy vessels in the region, ostensibly in retaliation for US intervention against Houthi attempts to board and capture merchant vessels.

The complex, proxy nature of the war in Yemen, combined with the inconsistent, intermittent international attention given to the conflict, has meant that foreign intervention has had little positive impact in terms of ending the war. United only by their common opposition to the Houthis, there is little common ground within the Saudi-led coalition. Thus, the already unpredictable nature of the Yemeni war is made more unstable as the coalition may, eventually, turn against one another due to their stark political, ethnic and ideological differences. The potential for conflict within the coalition to secure power and influence in the oil-rich region, is significant. Saudi Arabia is now seeking to disentangle from a decade-long conflict that has only increased instability in the region.

Discussions relating to humanitarian aid and human rights have without doubt attracted the most international attention within the Yemeni civil war. Food insecurity and the lack of access to clean water is the most severe and widespread issue in Yemen. Disease outbreaks such as malaria and cholera are common, civilians in refugee camps live in ill-equipped, unsanitary conditions, and infant mortality is the highest in the world, with a child dying every 10 minutes.

The conflict’s geopolitical implications were intensified when, in April last year, China adopted a new role: as peace mediator. The unexpected rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, whereby both parties agreed to resume diplomatic ties, was largely facilitated by China. The peace talks not only mark the renewal of relations but also revived a 2001 security pact which sought to constrain escalation in Yemen. The timing of this unforeseen deal has sparked much discussion about what catalysed détente. Below are three central lines of thought for the sudden move towards peace and its implications:

  1. Iran’s nuclear ambitions: A deal with Saudi would effectively neutralise hostile players, allowing Iran to focus its efforts elsewhere. This would free-up valuable economic resources to allocate to its nuclear development programme.
  1. Saudi frustrations with the Biden administration: The distance and disregard with which the US was treating their old ally, meant that Saudi started looking elsewhere for diplomatic relations and assistance in the war. Biden’s perceived weak diplomacy in the Middle East created opportunities for other actors to fill the growing gap, facilitating China’s role as a peacemaker, as US-Saudi relations dwindled.
  1. Chinese Opportunism: China’s contribution can be broadly attributed to being in the right place at the right time. It is possible China brought the two parties together to secure its own economic interests, specifically oil imports from Iran. China has now overtaken the US as the key player in the Middle East, forging alliances over commonalities, collective goals and economic partnerships to solidify diplomatic relations. However, the decision by Houthi forces to attack civilian merchant shipping and Western naval forces in the Red Sea risks derailing the putative peace process and demonstrates the limits of Chinese diplomacy.

China’s successful facilitation of the Iranian-Saudi talks may be interpreted as evidence of Saudi Arabia’s subtle shift away from the West and that it is starting to hedge. Although China’s leverage in the Middle East previously remained largely economic, political relations with China are increasingly important among the Gulf states. However, it is important that the détente between Saudi and Iran is viewed with cautious scepticism; the re-establishment of diplomatic relations is not a turning point or rapprochement per se, but rather a symbol of civility as both sides recognise the social, economic and political danger of continued conflict in the region. Iran has said it is not yet ready to dismantle its armed militias in the region and Saudi will remain defensively involved until the removal of Iranian forces are completed. Still, with the international ambitions of China in mind, the West must reconsider its place in the Middle East, specifically, the relations it wants to maintain with Saudi Arabia.

The Houthi threat in the Red Sea poses various challenges for the Royal Navy, requiring increased maritime security measures, collaboration with international partners, and potential adjustments to its operations in the region. The RN must consider the value in strengthening alliances and increasing presence in the region to counter China’s ambitions, and also how it can sustain protection of merchant shipping and the lawful use of the sea given its current personnel and platform deficit.

We are all aware of China’s so-called Malacca Dilemma. Is this now our comparator – a BAM Dilemma?