1706423307 Great Power Lite Why China is hesitant to get involved

Great Power Lite? Why China is hesitant to get involved in the Red Sea crisis – South China Morning Post

In response, a U.S.-led coalition of more than 20 countries from Britain to Bahrain has joined forces to protect trade in the Red Sea, including carrying out airstrikes against the Houthis.

Rather, Beijing's approach was to demand an end to the attacks on the ships and to express concern about the escalating situation.

Observers say China's cautious response is consistent with its general approach to crises in the Middle East and is unlikely to change unless the attacks harm its trade and commercial interests.

But they say the caution also reflects a lack of leadership and capacity in a country seeking to establish itself as a global power.

“It certainly shows no interest in acting as a major responsible power,” said Ori Sela, an associate professor at Tel Aviv University.

“While China maintains a clear rhetoric about maintaining peace and stability, in practice so far it appears that China is unable to deliver, either militarily or diplomatically.”

Great Power Lite Why China is hesitant to get involved


The US-led coalition is attacking Iran-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen

The US-led coalition is attacking Iran-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen

According to David Arase, a professor of international politics at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies, the fact that Chinese ships have not been attacked by the Houthis contributes to the fact that China has little interest in taking greater responsibility for the conflict .

Even if Chinese imports and exports carried by non-Chinese ships have rerouted their routes, leading to higher costs of goods, Beijing would rather absorb those costs than “join the US … or undertake costly security commitments in this volatile region,” added Arase added.

As a result, China had no obligation to ensure stability in the Red Sea or defend international shipping rights – nor was it willing to accept one.

This leaves Washington with the burden of protecting freedom of navigation and Beijing with a “free pass,” he said.

Meeting between US national security adviser and China's top diplomats in Thailand

Despite ongoing attacks on Houthi targets, attacks on shipping persist, a situation that China is using to reflect the failure of the U.S.-led global order and to cast its own efforts in a better light, Sela said.

“China sees an opportunity here to use this 'failure narrative' to later demonstrate that China's 'world order' is superior to the US,” he said.

However, the Red Sea conflict has instead shown the “volatility and fragility” of China's successes in the region, particularly the deal negotiated between Iran and Saudi Arabia, he said.

The Financial Times reported last week that the US had urged China to use its influence over Iran to contain the Houthis, as there was little sign Beijing would do so.

Sela said countries had low expectations that Beijing would take a leadership role, but they would “expect a little more diplomatic engagement from China,” particularly toward Iran.

The ongoing attacks by the Tehran-backed Houthis “undermine the entire Chinese narrative” about the impact of the deal.

“The situation in the Red Sea has shown China in its true greatness: very important economically in the region, but far from actually being a world power,” Sela added.

“Staying calm at this point could help China get away with impunity,” he said.

The US national security adviser is holding “constructive” talks with the Chinese foreign minister

Jeremy Chan, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, also suggested that China's muted response was due to China viewing the Red Sea attacks as a “direct result” of the failure to achieve a lasting ceasefire in Gaza, a failure which attributed it to the United States.

Under these circumstances, Beijing would not support Washington, whether by condemning the Houthis or conducting joint naval patrols in the Red Sea – a move that would work in the short term but not in the big picture.

“In my assessment, this is a smart move from the narrow perspective of Chinese interests, but a stupid move for a country that intends to become a global leader,” Chan said.

According to Andrew Scobell, Distinguished Fellow on China at the US Institute of Peace, China has largely behaved as a “great power lite” in the Middle East, where although it was an economic heavyweight, it remained a “diplomatic lightweight and a military featherweight”.

“With some notable exceptions, Beijing has made modest, largely pro forma gestures in diplomacy, albeit with principled calls for dialogue and peace, while China has demonstrated a 'soft' presence militarily in the Middle East,” he said.

“It has learned how to talk about the great power, but is still learning how to walk the great power march.”

However, Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said China's position is not just about taking sides – it must support the rights and interests of all parties, especially developing countries.

“It’s not just about condemning and supporting one side. China’s position must be about continuity and consistency,” he said.

Developing countries would want China to take a “fair stance” and “speak for the Arab world.”

1706423299 700 Great Power Lite Why China is hesitant to get involved


Yemen's Houthi fighters behind attacks in the Red Sea threaten to disrupt global trade

Yemen's Houthi fighters behind attacks in the Red Sea threaten to disrupt global trade

Alvin Camba, an assistant professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, said China's response shows it is “tiptoeing between global leadership … and advancing its geopolitical interests.”

A world leader would ensure the safety of all merchant ships regardless of their political stance, he said, but only Chinese and Russian ships were reportedly assured of safety by the Houthis.

“China is trying to achieve both, doing little and yet achieving the desired results of both,” he said.

Camba added that China's leadership could be damaged if it portrays itself as a “less responsible” leader.

“It sends the message that if you do something to harm the West and you don’t do anything against us, we won’t do anything that harms you.”

China has very little power projection capacity in the Gulf and is certainly not prepared to engage in a major conflict

William Figueroa, University of Groningen

Arase suggested that Beijing would try to gain some “leadership points,” such as calling for a broader regional discussion, but it appeared China was pushing ahead with its diplomatic plans “at no material cost.”

William Figueroa, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen, said Beijing does not want to be seen as a supporter of a group that threatens the stability of the international shipping system, and it does not want its own regional projects to be hampered by a larger regional conflict.

At the same time, there was an awareness of the relationship between the Houthis and Iran and their limits in influencing either party.

“I think this is consistent with China’s long-term approach,” said Figueroa, who has researched China’s relations with Middle Eastern countries.

“That is the only position that makes sense, because what else can China do? China has very little power projection capacity in the Gulf and is certainly not prepared to engage in a major conflict.”

1706423301 469 Great Power Lite Why China is hesitant to get involvedA Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 is ready to take off to carry out air strikes on Houthi military targets in Yemen on Monday. Photo: British Ministry of Defense via AP

China is likely to maintain its existing position for longer than many expected, especially since its ships are not widely affected, Chan said.

And as long as the Arab Gulf states – where China's most important trading interests lie – maintain a similar stance, Beijing will “certainly stay on the current course.”

However, pressure could grow on China to do more if attacks in the Red Sea continue. Arase said investments and partnerships in China's Belt and Road Initiative could be damaged.

However, he also noted that these projects are typically permanent, long-term and likely to outlast the crisis.

Would China play a bigger role? Probably not, say analysts.

While China can do more, such as putting more pressure on Iran, Beijing is often reluctant to do things that do not guarantee success, Sela said.

However, pressure on the Chinese government would increase if Chinese companies suffered the consequences of the Red Sea conflict. That, said Sela, was the “only reason” that could persuade Beijing to change course.

“Although China's economy faces difficult challenges, it seems that China can hold out for a few more months. “Perhaps China believes that as summer approaches, it could make greater use of Arctic routes and thus mitigate the impact of the problems in the Red Sea,” he said.

“In any case, China seems to assume that they will somehow solve the problem since many other countries are suffering from the Red Sea attacks.”