Followers of international news may have been surprised to see China and Yemen sharing headlines over the past year. Recent reports of China’s aid shipment to the Saudi-sponsored Hadi government in Yemen spurred another wave of press coverage hinting at Beijing’s support for the Hadi government. Previous Chinese expressions of concern about the Iran-aligned Ansar Allah (Houthi) insurgency which opposes Hadi further substantiate that view, but also raise a lot of questions.
Beijing has typically stayed out of Middle Eastern politics, even after China became a net importer of petroleum in 1993. Typically, China has deferred decisive action to its four fellow members of the UN Security Council on Middle Eastern affairs, so what accounts for their increased interest in the Arab world? Furthermore, why would China contravene Iran, a country which plays a central role in China’s foreign relations?
China, in what is variously referred to as the “One Belt, One Road” or “New Silk Route” initiative, has made bids to develop infrastructure all across Eurasia. This includes road, rail, and pipeline projects that will crisscross Central Asia and link up with Europe. China’s projected increase from greater access to Central Asian resources and European markets justifies the capital it is pouring into this project. But as China’s interests expand, so does their desire to defend those interests.
The maritime component of the New Silk Route includes a number of newly built Chinese naval bases in willing host countries around the rim of the Indian Ocean, including one in Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti also hosts French, Japanese, Saudi, Spanish, Italian, and American military bases. This marks the first time that U.S. and Chinese military bases have shared a host country, strange bedfellows though they may be, and is a concrete example of a growing number of convergences between the two countries’ interests.
Djibouti happens to lie just across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait from Yemen, which is likely a factor in Beijing’s calculus behind supporting an established regime. Houthi fighters have committed previous acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and protracted civil war in Yemen may result in a failed state pirate haven like Somalia. As the volume of Chinese trade through the Suez canal increases, so do their stakes in keeping peace in the region.
Supporting the Hadi government is an example of China throwing its diplomatic weight into stabilizing the regions in which it is looking to do business. A recent article in The Diplomat asserted that China’s decision to stand behind the Hadi government, rather than the Iran-supported Houthi rebels, is an attempt to broaden their influence in the Sunni world. This move is effectively a bet against the likelihood that Tehran will distance itself from Beijing, one of its sympathetic ears in the UN Security Council. It also is a demonstration of China’s ability to play both sides of the field in a conflict, thereby positioning itself as a deal-broker. This is something that Chinese news has been recently touting as a particular trademark of the Xi Jinping administration.
During the height of the Cold War, Maoist China supported “wars of liberation” all over the globe, but unlike the sponsorship of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., that support did not take the form of boots on the ground. With the glaring exception of the Korean War, Chinese troops have virtually never been mobilized to fight in extranational conflicts. However, both the Cold War and Mao’s China are long gone. Whether President Xi’s China will continue that tradition remains to be seen, but it is clear that China’s support of President Hadi is evidently an effort to protect its interests and has little to do with ideology.
Taking a side in Yemen is indicative of a shift towards a more proactive Chinese foreign policy centered on keeping the peace in regions into which Chinese interests are expanding. In Yemen, China backs the Hadi government for the sake of stability, and their position just so happens to align with U.S. policy. In Syria, China views the Assad government as the best bet for regional stability, and that stance happens to contradict U.S. interests.
In its first few months, the administration in Washington tended towards stark isolationism, which signaled to Beijing that there would be voids to fill in in the global geopolitical landscape. Recently, President Trump has eased off some of his original isolationist rhetoric. No matter what caused that pivot, some opportunities for America to take the lead in the international arena have already been lost, and regaining them could also be a source of tension. Over the next decade or so, China and the U.S. will pit their resolve against each other in another era of global bipolarity.
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