Iran-Backed Houthi Attacks Establish One Fact – China Is No Truce Expert

It took just a few days of the Israel-Hamas war for its meticulous diplomacy in the Middle East to come undone.

5 min read
Hindi Female

It is official now. China's peacemaking scheme in the Middle East is in tatters as push came to shove.

A diligently crafted policy in order to slowly but steadily fill in the vacuum being created by a receding US footprint, as well as to secure its interests in the region, from energy imports to its ambitious connectivity plans, has unraveled rather fast in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

It has not even been a year since the much acclaimed "truce" between regional archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia brokered by China. The two were locked in an increasingly intractable proxy war in Yemen with the Houthis, backed by Iran, dislodging the Saudi-Emirati-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

It was hailed by many analysts in the West as "a diplomatic win for China", poised to be an alternative to the US influence there.

The Soaring Iran-China Ties 

Of course, China had its own reasons for mediating such a deal. With Iran, relations had been developing fast. When sanctions were slapped against Iran for its controversial nuclear program, China quickly filled in the void left by the Western companies and others (including Indian ones).

It built infrastructure, continued trade and investments, and sourced much of its energy imports from Iran, becoming its top customer. It also became a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal.

In March 2021, it signed a 25-year 'strategic cooperation pact’, whereby it committed to investing USD 400 billion over 25 years in Iran in return for low-priced crude supplies. Iran is also a signatory to China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Equally, the Arab world is important for Beijing. Half of China's oil imports come from the region, and for 11 countries, China is the largest trading partner. And at least 18 Arab states have signed on to the BRI.


How The Saudi-Iran Peace Deal Benefits China

China is also pushing for a Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). During President Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia in March 2023 at the time of the China-GCC summit, he promised more procurement of oil and gas from the region and also pushed for trade in the Chinese Yuan.

The GCC economy is still heavily dependent on economic sales, while their 'over trillion' sovereign wealth funds are also important sources of investment flows to China.

The region is also an important cog in the BRI. It was no wonder that China was interested in having the warring parties come to the table, to initiate peace in a region already reeling from the pandemic, and steal a march over the US.

The Riyadh-Tehran truce was important for Beijing because it in part meant to herald multipolarity in the world. For their part, Riyadh and Tehran pursued the same objectives due to similar issues. There was dissent at home for Tehran, while the Saudis had been struck by Houthi attacks on strategic assets inside the kingdom, along with war weariness and weakening economies. All these factors necessitated a detente.

Consequently, the trilateral agreement signed in Beijing by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China said inter alia that both Iran and Saudi Arabia had agreed " resume diplomatic relations between them and re-open their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months, and the agreement includes their affirmation of the respect for the autonomy of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states...."

China, which had by then also cultivated close ties with Israel, chose to throw its lot with the Iran-Arab side, taking up a more strident pro-Palestinian position subsequently.


Israel-Hamas War Has Undone China's Diplomacy

It was also a challenge thrown to the US policy in the region. Close allies like Saudi Arabia, whose relations with the US have been increasingly complicated for a variety of factors since the beginning of the Arab Spring, also began turning eastwards, i.e., Russia, China, and India, to diversify their foreign policy and strategic partnerships.

Soon after the Iran-Saudi truce, China stepped up its role in the Middle East.

When, subsequently, a fresh but regular bout of violence broke out between Israel, the Palestinians, and Lebanon, China called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to hold an urgent discussion about the latest Israel-Palestinian situation and subsequent developments. It also convened a meeting of all-Arab ambassadors in Beijing.

It took just a few days of the Israel-Hamas war for China's carefully crafted diplomacy to come undone.

Houthi Attacks Weaken China’s Diplomatic Sway

As the Houthis began their attacks on commercial vessels traversing the Red Sea, the limits of China's Middle East diplomacy stood exposed.

The Houthis have announced that the cessation of attacks was contingent on the cessation of Israel's attacks on Gaza. While China has continued to call for a ceasefire and a return to negotiations for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this has not hedged it from the Red Sea attacks.

As global shipping and trade through the Red Sea continue to remain disrupted, shipments of Chinese cars to Israel have almost halted. More importantly, China's largest state-owned shipping company, COSCO, has suspended shipping to Israel via the Red Sea.

Considering that the Houthis are largely funded and backed by Iran, and China has taken up a rather pro-Palestinian position, it points to the limits of China's leverage in the region.

While it has approached Iran to rein in the militant group; this has not shown any results.


Expecting China to follow through with its diplomacy, perhaps to also test its clout in the region, US officials are also reported to have asked Beijing to urge Tehran to pull the Houthis back. This was raised during a meeting of US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Deputy, Jon Finer, in Washington in January with Liu Jianchao, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international department.

However, this has failed to yield any results, though China has decried the US-led 'Operation Prosperity Guardian' launched in December 2023, a multinational coalition to respond to the Houthi attacks. It has also condemned the joint US-UK strikes on Yemen.


The Fallacy of China’s 'Alternate Order’ in the Middle East

The Red Sea attacks reflect the fragility of the "Middle Eastern truce" that China had helped facilitate as the old fault lines resurfaced.

The very reason that the Saudi-Emirati attacks on Yemen were launched beginning March 2015 was to secure the Bab El Mandab and the Red Sea through which much of the Gulf's trade with the world occurs. This nightmare has now come to fruition.

And China, which seemed to provide an alternative vision for the region, seems incapable or unwilling to make any meaningful interventions.

Instead, Iran recently announced that it would be holding joint naval drills with China and Russia before the end of March, aimed at improving regional security.

This may be an act of defiance to the US, but clearly exposes the limits of China's clout and influence in the region, the facileness of its much acclaimed "Middle East peacemaking", and the constraints to its vision of an alternative world order.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Middle East    China    Yemen 

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