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China's Role in the Red Sea Crisis: Navigating Geo-Political Complexities 



In the initial phase of the conflict between Israel and Gaza, China found itself aligned with regional  partners Saudi Arabia and Iran. This alignment included condemning Israeli aggression, advocating  for a negotiated settlement, and participating in joint conferences to express collective opposition.  However, the dynamics shifted with the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, creating a complex situation  for China. 


China, as the world's primary exporter and a significant player in global shipping, has a substantial  economic interest in ensuring the security of shipping lanes; the United States sought to leverage  China's influence on Iran to curb the Houthi attacks, revealing the intricate diplomatic dance taking  place between these nations. 


Despite being a major stakeholder in Red Sea shipping lanes, China faced economic repercussions  from the crisis. The reluctance to directly condemn the Houthis or link them to Iran led China to voice  disapproval, emphasising the need to respect freedom of navigation and cease attacks on civilian  ships. 


Reports surfaced about China issuing a veiled, threatening, statement to Iran hinting at potential  repercussions on Sino-Iranian business relations if Houthi attacks impacted Chinese interests.  However, the true impact of this pressure remains uncertain, adding another layer of complexity to  the situation. 


In February, media outlets reported China sending three warships to the Red Sea, but it is crucial to  note that such deployments are routine. China has dispatched over 150 warships to the Gulf of Aden  since 2008. The three ships were deployed to replace a group of six that had sailed to the Red Sea  in October, indicating a downgrade of Chinese forces in the region. 


Examining China's influence over Iran reveals a nuanced picture. While China purchases the majority of Iranian oil and supplies weapons and surveillance equipment, converting this influence  into meaningful leverage proves challenging. Most Iranian oil is purchased illicitly by private "teapot"  refineries, as state refineries are cautious about breaching U.S. sanctions. 


Economic stress in China further complicates the situation, as oil processing companies may be  reluctant to forgo the deep discounts offered by Iranian suppliers. A disruption in the flow of Iranian  oil to China has already occurred, stemming from a "stalemate" between Iranian oil suppliers and  Chinese refineries over these steep discounts. 


While China has committed to various investment projects in Iran, the actual implementation lags,  and Iran falls behind other Middle Eastern nations in terms of Chinese foreign direct investment.  This reveals the challenges China faces in translating its influence into tangible outcomes. 


However, the United States continues to insist that China exerts pressure on Iran in the Red  Sea crisis. Discussions between U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign  Minister Wang Yi highlighted Washington's belief that Beijing is not using meaningful leverage on  Iran. The U.S. contends that Beijing is engaging with Iranians but remains cautious in commenting  on the effectiveness of these efforts. 


Amidst increased U.S. military strikes in the region, China grows more agitated about a potential  escalation; Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasises Beijing's unease, stressing that the  United Nations Security Council has not authorised the use of force against Yemen. He urges  avoiding actions that contribute to heightened tensions in the Red Sea, emphasising the broader  regional security risks.


China, feeling the pressure from disruptions to global shipping, recognises the potential threat of a  wider conflict between the U.S. and Iran to its entire economic strategy in the region. Beijing asserts  that a ceasefire in Gaza is the best way to de-escalate the situation, echoing the Houthis' statement  that such a ceasefire would lead to an end to their attacks. 


The U.S. insistence that China has an "obligation" to pressure Iran and restrain the Houthis raises  questions when considering the U.S. refusal to use its more substantial influence over Israel. Despite  having economic, military, and political leverage over Israel, the U.S. opts to send arms amid a brutal  campaign against Gaza, a move criticised by legal experts and the International Court of Justice. 


In this intricate geopolitical dance, China finds itself walking a fine line, balancing economic interests,  limited influence over Iran, and a desire to avoid broader regional conflict. The complexities  underscore the challenges nations face in navigating diplomatic waters amid global crises.



Image: Iranian Presidency Office/via AP

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