The Houthis in Yemen announced on January 19 that they would permit Chinese and Russian vessels to safely transit the Red Sea. The same day, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce called on the Houthis to cease “harassment” of commercial shipping and announced unspecified future efforts to protect regional seaborne commerce. Nevertheless, the price of shipping a 40-foot container between Europe and China increased by 260 percent within the past month, pressuring countries that rely on shipping through the Red Sea.
Senior Houthi official Mohammed al-Bukhaiti added that vessels “in any way connected with Israel” will remain military targets. The Houthis have justified their attacks in the Red Sea as retaliation for Israel’s campaign in Gaza, a claim echoed by Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, on January 17. On January 18, Houthi rebels launched two anti-ship ballistic missiles at the U.S.-owned civilian ship M/V Chem Ranger — the fourth strike of its kind that week.
“Both China and Russia have erred in placing the safety of their ships in Houthi hands. It’s merely a matter of time before a Chinese vessel finds itself in the crosshairs, and when that occurs, China will only have itself to blame for not curbing Iran’s actions beforehand.” — Craig Singleton, FDD Senior Fellow
“No surprise here. China, Russia, and the Houthis deserve each other. While the United States and allies do the hard work of actually protecting shipping, holding terrorist missile systems at risk, and ensuring the freedom of the seas for all nations, China looks out for only itself. China needs to remember that if you want to be treated like a world leader, you need to act like a world leader.” — RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery, FDD Senior Fellow and Senior Director of FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation
“China and Iran are increasingly aligned in their opposition to the United States, its allies, and its interests. For years now, China and Iran have been increasing their diplomatic, economic, and security cooperation. That’s why it’s hardly shocking to see such a cozy relationship between China and the Houthis, Tehran’s terror proxy in Yemen.” — Bradley Bowman, Senior Director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power
China Bows to Houthi Threats
China has vowed to “restore and ensure the safe waterways in the Red Sea.” Yet three People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels conducting counter-piracy operations ignored multiple distress calls from the commercial vessel M/V Central Park during an attempted boarding in November 2023. While the Red Sea remains crucial to China’s Maritime Silk Road, China has yet to provide a clear strategy to stop Houthi attacks on commercial shipping. Moreover, China effectively bowed to Houthi threats when COSCO, China’s largest shipping company, announced suspension of service to Israel.
Despite China’s empty rhetoric, the United States and its partners will continue to defend this critical transportation route responsible for 10 to 15 percent of global commerce. Over the past week, the U.S. military announced the interception of Iranian “advanced conventional weapons” en route to Houthi rebels and destroyed more than 20 Houthi missiles.