Chinese-linked trade vessels passing through the Red Sea are advertising their ties to Beijing in an effort to avoid becoming a target for Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have been attacking Western ships along one of the world’s most important global trade routes in protest of Israel’s military operations in Gaza.
The fear of being mistaken for a U.S. or U.K. ship isn’t unfounded: Houthi attacks have already accidentally targeted several vessels carrying Russian oil.
Publicly-available data obtained by Bloomberg found that at least five ships passing through the Red Sea last week changed their destination signal to messages like “all Chinese crew” or something similar. Ship destinations are normally entered manually by the crew and are then visible to almost anyone on the internet.
The ships’ decision to stress their Chinese identity underscores Beijing’s muted role in the Middle East conflict and its perceived neutrality by regional governments. While some analysts believe China’s lack of action to mitigate the crisis could benefit its own interests in the long run, others worry Beijing risks alienating economic partners in Africa and the Middle East.
Beijing’s neutrality is enough for the Houthis, and China has no plans to intervene
China’s neutral position in the conflict “has been strong enough for individual ships to try to use it,” China analyst Sari Arho Havrén of the Royal United Service Institute told Semafor, though she also noted China’s “tacit support to Palestine,” given that it didn’t condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. But Beijing’s neutrality is more “lip service,” Havrén said. China is calling for a ceasefire and two-state solution, but it’s also not pushing against the U.S.’ shuttle diplomacy — or serving as an intermediary — in the region, hoping Washington will help stabilize things on its own, which Havrén said would have trade benefits for Beijing. Chinese propaganda is also pushing the message that Beijing is incapable of solving the Middle East crisis. If China hasn’t been able to stop Israel from bombarding Gaza, “how can we persuade the Houthis?” questioned Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of state tabloid the Global Times.
China-brokered peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia is at risk of collapsing, but Beijing would benefit if the U.S. is at fault
The U.S. directly attacking the Houthis threatens the collapse of Yemeni peace negotiations, which would “undoubtedly throw the China-brokered Saudi–Iran de-escalation process into the abyss,” wrote Chatham House fellow Ahmed Aboudouh. In recent years, China has emerged as a key player in maintaining regional stability in the Middle East, with the Saudi-Iran deal considered the “bedrock of Beijing’s regional vision.” But China’s silver lining in any escalation, Aboudouh opined, is that Arab governments would blame the U.S. for destabilizing the region, legitimizing Beijing’s narrative of needing a new global authority.
The Global South may view China’s inaction poorly
Beijing has sought to foster closer ties with the Global South through programs like the Belt and Road Initiative, but the economic consequences from a heightened Red Sea Crisis “would be judged” by developing countries, wrote policy researcher Asma Khalid for the South China Morning Post. The global economy has yet to see meaningful impacts from the Houthi attacks on global shipping, but a prolonged crisis will hike inflation, which “hurts ordinary people as businesses transfer their costs to consumers,” Khalid said. Analysts are particularly worried about increasing energy prices as oil tankers avoid the Red Sea, given the Global South is especially reliant on fossil fuels. To maintain strong relations with developing countries, China must more forcibly condemn the Houthi attacks, a sign that Beijing acknowledges “the severe implications for Arab and African economies,” Khalid argued.