The Platform


China is trying to win the geopolitical chess game without moving a single piece.

Central banks are increasingly concerned about another inflationary spike following a dramatic 35% drop in traffic through the Red Sea, largely attributed to Houthi attacks that have disrupted one of the world’s busiest and most crucial shipping routes. Amid this upheaval, four of the five largest shipping companies have chosen to reroute their vessels from the Red Sea to the Cape of Good Hope. This detour adds 3,200 miles and results in a nine-day delay at 15 knots for shipments from Asia to Europe. These additional miles not only delay product deliveries but also inflate global shipping costs, exacerbating inflation and causing widespread economic distress.

As the reverberations of Houthi attacks continue to echo along the shores of the Red Sea, a pressing question arises: Why has China remained conspicuously silent on the crisis, despite being a significant player in the region?

The Houthis have declared Israel and its allies as their targets in response to the Gaza conflict. However, their actions have indiscriminately ensnared the global economy. While China has been largely spared from the direct impacts of these attacks, it nonetheless suffers economically as countries pivot to a “near-shoring” approach to mitigate supply chain disruptions. Beijing’s decision to stay out of the conflict, despite the significant economic repercussions, has raised eyebrows globally.

A 2023 Pentagon report highlights that China’s military fields the largest navy in the world. Contrastingly, the U.S., with its fleet of 293 ships, has launched a task force to secure Red Sea passages. Meanwhile, China, with its 370 ships, has refrained from participating in the operation and has even criticized the coalition, suggesting it only escalates the conflict.

From the perspective of hegemonic stability theory, Beijing’s muted response appears to be a calculated strategy aimed at counterbalancing America’s dominance in the region. China seems to be playing a dual game to establish its influence in the Red Sea, aligning with its aspirations of becoming the dominant power. On one hand, China adheres to a policy of non-interference, avoiding direct involvement in regional conflicts to maintain its image as a peaceful nation.

This stance prevents any strain on its relations with the Houthis and ensures a smooth trade flow in the future. By opting for diplomatic flexibility over military expansion, China strengthens ties with various regional players, including those with interests counter to America’s.

On the other hand, China benefits as a “free rider,” conserving its resources while enjoying the security provided by the American military presence. China’s restrained response is a strategic move to entangle the U.S. in regional conflicts, thereby overextending its resources and influence. By taking a pragmatic and cautious approach, China secures its economic interests while remaining neutral, avoiding risks to its broader diplomatic goals.

Beijing’s stance of non-interference starkly contrasts with America’s historical and ongoing interventions, enhancing China’s appeal to local governments wary of American interference. China cannot afford to jeopardize its relationship with Iran, which is crucial not only for its interests in the Red Sea but also for bolstering its geopolitical standing. Both countries have aligned by supporting Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, another reason for maintaining smooth relations with Iran.

Additionally, China garners global sympathy by framing the Gaza conflict as the root cause of Houthi attacks, positioning itself as a defender of human rights while subtly challenging American policies. This strategy helps China exert global pressure on the U.S. to cease its military actions in the Red Sea, thereby weakening American influence and enhancing China’s position as a dominant power.

However, China’s limited response to the crisis exposes its Global Security Initiative as potentially hollow. By avoiding a decisive stance, China risks being seen as a less responsible actor than the U.S. This lack of action underscores China’s limited capability and interest in providing regional security and stability. The crisis reveals that China prefers relying on other countries’ efforts, even when its interests are at stake.

Despite this criticism, the U.S. operation creates a win-win situation for China. If successful, China benefits from restored trade routes without bearing the operation’s blame, which would fall on the UK and the U.S. If the operation fails, China stands to gain a larger share of Red Sea trade, rewarding its compliance with the Houthis during the crisis, while other shipping entities face the threat of attacks or the economic drawbacks of alternative routes around Africa.

Malaika Tariq is an undergraduate student of International Relations at National Defence University, Islamabad.