Since the 2015 outbreak of the war in Yemen, China’s position on the conflict has stemmed from its desire for stability in the Middle East and goes hand-in-hand with its understanding of how best to achieve it and consolidate its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region.
China, Yemen, and the GCC
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in January 2016 and affirmed Chinese recognition of the Gulf Cooperation Council-backed (GCC) Yemeni government forced into exile by the Houthis in late 2014.
Xi initiated this alignment with Riyadh with the aim of preserving a unified Yemen. This demonstrated China’s trust in the GCC and Saudi-UAE-led coalition to stabilize Yemen. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government had lost most of Yemen’s economic and military assets to the Iran-aligned Houthis, and its dependency on Riyadh meant that its return to power would be largely overseen by the GCC. As would be the task of keeping Yemen’s governance afloat afterward.
Geographically, China’s faith in the GCC makes sense. The Persian Gulf is a logical entry point into the Middle East for China’s BRI, whose largest component, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is just across the Arabian Sea.
The GCC states’ mostly rigid political structures and autocratic, centralized governance make them ideal partners to help initiate the BRI’s Middle East leg via long-term commitments undisturbed by political change. As noted in a 2017 analysis by Jonathan Fulton, author of the book “China’s Relations with the Gulf Monarchies,” the Gulf states have synchronized their individual development plans with China’s BRI, such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, despite the BRI not having a formal corridor for the Gulf.
However, GCC-BRI synergies alone are unlikely to have led China to declare its political position on Yemen and break away from its typical avoidance of overseas conflicts. Instead, Beijing was likely signaling what kind of Middle East-wide security it would like to see for its BRI.
China-GCC Security Multilateralism
While China has traditionally engaged in good bilateral dealings with each Gulf Arab state, its current initiatives, such as the China-GCC Strategic Dialogue, indicate it is now seeking a multilateral arrangement.
Since there are no other GCC-like formal multilateral bodies in the Middle East, its significance to China as an outpost of relative stability in the volatile region becomes evident.
In an interview with Saudi state media Al Arabiya in March 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi unveiled China’s Five-Point Initiative for Middle Eastern security and stability. The initiative called for regional states to advocate mutual respect, uphold equity and justice, achieve non-proliferation, accelerate development cooperation, and finally foster collective security.
The fourth point placed a particular onus on Gulf countries (the GCC plus Iran and Iraq) to encourage dialogue and consultation, and improve relations, even offering to host a Gulf multilateral dialogue in China.
The Yemen Obstacle
The Yemen War is an inescapable snag to any such Chinese-conceived Middle East security project.
Yemen is a simmering security problem for the GCC, located at its very doorstep. If Chinese-GCC efforts cannot reduce or end hostilities in Yemen and institute new terms of non-military engagement in the Arabian Peninsula-Gulf region, they cannot pitch their model as the solution for other Middle Eastern conflicts.
Accordingly, China’s permanent ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts for a political resolution of the Yemen War and reiterated China’s recognition of the Riyadh-backed Yemeni government in May 2021. Jun also condemned Houthi attacks on Saudi territory and addressed humanitarian aid obligations in areas of Yemen under coalition control.
The ambassador’s comments were made despite the stark humanitarian toll inflicted by the Saudi-Emirati blockade of key Yemeni ports, which emphasized China’s expectation in the GCC to stabilize Yemen.
Ultimately, China seeks to integrate its 2021 Five-Point Initiative with its 2016 Yemen policy.
The Red Sea Factor
Another reason for China’s interest in building a stable Middle Eastern security architecture lies in its relationship with Israel and the Red Sea region.
In 2015, China secured operating rights for the new port in Haifa, on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The Israeli business paper Globes described the port as a “bridgehead” for BRI’s “Maritime Silk Road” (MSR) corollary and part of the “String of Pearls”, a series of overseas ports operated by China on the sea route between its mainland and Europe.
Israel considers the Houthis an active threat, given the group’s alliance with its archrival, Iran. What makes the broader Iranian-Israeli conflict difficult for China to ignore is its impact on Red Sea security and shipping.
The Houthis control most of Yemen’s Red Sea coast. An Israeli-Houthi conflict would turn the Red Sea into a flashpoint and endanger trade and shipments passing through.
The Red Sea is arguably the most crucial part of the MSR. It is China’s shortest trade route to Europe, the key market which much of BRI’s Middle East expansion is designed to facilitate.
In fact, the Red Sea may even outweigh the Gulf when it comes to pressuring China to push for a Middle East security architecture involving a resolution to the Yemen war.
David Shinn, adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University, argues that China’s existing portfolio of shares and operating rights in several Red Sea littoral state ports gives it the necessary regional staying-power for a Red Sea security strategy.
“From the standpoint of China’s security interests and power projection along the MSR, almost all of China’s FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] in support of infrastructure projects has gone to port development and trade-related storage facilities,” Shinn wrote in May 2021. Such projects have cemented strong foundations in its Red Sea region security footprint. In 2017, Beijing opened a naval base in Djibouti, right at the Bab al Mandeb chokepoint where the Red Sea begins.
Furthermore, China’s Israeli and GCC BRI partners are already cooperating to build a Red Sea security order. For Beijing, this further rationalizes partnering with the GCC with the awareness that this will snowball into broader security multilateralism across the Middle East.
Yemen and Regional Security Contradictions
The Yemen war could either help or hinder China’s relationship with the Middle East. On one hand, it could serve as a reason and opportunity to start developing their Middle Eastern security relationships. However, it could also destroy any hopes of forming stable, long-term relations with Gulf countries.
Yemen is being used as one of Iran’s instruments to further its own initiative for Gulf multilateral security. The 2019 Iranian “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” (HOPE) calls for Gulf countries to shun extra-regional security guarantors – leaving Iran, the largest Gulf state, dominant.
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani unveiled HOPE at the United Nations in December 2019, less than two weeks after the Houthi-claimed missile attacks on Saudi ARAMCO installations.
Later, investigations determined that Iran – not the Houthis – launched the attacks. This illustrated how Iran used its plausible deniability vis-a-vis Houthi operations as its “stick” to pressure the GCC to accept the “carrot” in the form of the HOPE proposal.
Now, Iran has even more reason to promote its HOPE agenda instead of China’s Five-Point Initiative. The ongoing negotiations for the US to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran have not required Iran to give up its ties with regional militias such as the Houthis – a key GCC demand of the JCPOA since the treaty’s first iteration was drawn up in 2015.
With the GCC unable to stop Iran from using Yemen to pressure them on the Gulf security issue, Tehran may well continue to favor its HOPE plan over a more equal-footing dialogue under China’s Five-Point Initiative.
In It for the Long Run
China is a key JCPOA signatory and is actively working for the treaty’s revival. Beijing is as well placed as anyone to know that security multilateralism may fail at establishing the equitable Middle Eastern security framework it desires and sees as best for its BRI-MSR.
Nevertheless, continuing to promote multilateralism seems China’s best option for the Middle East right now and in the long run. China’s appeal to regional states lies not only in its oil-hungry economic growth but also in its disinterest in being part of power struggles and polarizing geopolitics. Promoting an inclusive regional security order – not the victory of one power-seeking bloc over another is China’s main goal.