This article examines the broad implications of the 2015 Yemeni civil war on Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East. The findings show that the ongoing crisis in Yemen presents a challenge to the key element of non-intervention guiding Chinese foreign policy in the region and may force Beijing to gradually abandon its low-key strategy in managing its relations with the countries in the region.
The Yemeni civil war, which began in 2014, is one of the more complex events to have emerged since the start of the Arab Spring. There are numerous factors at play in this conflict, including economic interests, religious extremism, proxy war, sectarian tensions, terrorist activity, and great power politics. The ongoing crisis in Yemen, and the series of civil wars that have erupted in the region since the Arab Spring (Iraq, Syria, and Libya), has presented a challenge for Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East. Beijing, which has traditionally adhered to a policy of non-interference in the region, may be forced to abandon this policy in order to maintain relations with the Middle Eastern countries. China may thus be slowly moving towards a more sophisticated, flexible, and pragmatic approach to these regional changes.
Given the complexities of the sectarian conflict in Yemen and clashing national interests in the region, this article seeks to examine the broader implications of the Yemeni civil war on Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East. Will the ongoing crisis in Yemen have a significant impact on China’s non-interference policy in the region? What are the challenges and implications of the war in Yemen on Chinese foreign policy in general in the Middle East? Is there a noticeable development in China’s foreign policy in the context of the conflict in Yemen? The answer to these questions will have far-reaching implications, not only for China’s Middle East foreign policy but also for its principles and practices in global politics.
CHINA’S NON-INTERFERENCE PRINCIPLE AND THE YEMENI CIVIL WAR
Generally, Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East is driven by broader national interests, namely, to continue its economic growth, preserve its political system ruled by a communist party, defend its sovereignty from foreign threat and other interferences into its internal affairs, and expand its global influence as a rising global economic and political power. However, China’s engagement with Middle East countries is driven primarily by its efforts to achieve energy security. These wider national interests are reflected in China’s main objectives in the region: enhancing economic ties; supporting its efforts to achieve energy security; fostering friendly relations with all the Middle Eastern countries; and promoting regional stability that supports its own economic, political, and security interests.
While there are many aspects of continuity in China’s foreign policy, it has also changed in many important respects since the end of the Cold War. Most notable has been China’s evolving attitude and practice with regards to its non-interference policy. This policy was part of a Chinese grand strategy designed to defend the country from foreign interference during and after the Cold War. In general, China’s attitude toward intervention has never been uncompromising and has evolved in accordance with international and regional changes. To be sure, China opposes the idea of intervention, but it has participated in various intervention actions in the Middle East for different reasons. For instance, China’s vote approving the United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya represents a deviation from its principle of non-intervention in the “internal affairs” of other countries.
China’s non-interference policy in the Middle East and elsewhere is implemented in a flexible, pragmatic, and sometimes creative way. China does, in fact, involve itself in the affairs of other countries, unless it would be detrimental to its own national or economic interest. Chinese leadership considers the Middle East the “graveyard of great powers,” and seeks to avoid becoming involved in crisis or war in the region and to avoid being perceived as aligning with particular countries or stakeholders. However, since the events of the Arab Spring, China’s non-interference principle has faced several geopolitical challenges that have forced it to gradually abandon this policy in maintaining relations with the countries in the region.
For the most part, China’s non-interference policy is framed by an interest in achieving a final settlement or effective management, rather than intentionally seeking to complicate the conflict or civil war. Therefore, Beijing prefers for external powers to avoid intervening in the “internal affairs” of other countries. If, however, the parties concerned fail to settle the conflict directly, then China would accept a regional organization that is acceptable to the parties. Only if this organization failed to settle the conflict would China reluctantly be willing to involve the UN Security Council in the settlement of the conflict. The worst scenario in Beijing’s perspective would be a unilateral extra-regional intervention in intrastate wars.
From the beginning, Beijing has been neutral over the Saudi military action against the Houthi rebels, calling for a ceasefire and urging the international community to resolve the Yemeni civil war through diplomacy. The Yemeni civil conflict is, in a sense, a war of proxies, as the war is being fought between the Yemeni government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies, and the Houthi insurgency, supported by Iran. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are Beijing’s most important regional economic partners, and particularly important sources of oil for its energy security. Thus, Beijing’s official attitude is cautious and is essentially a balancing act in order for it to remain neutral and avoid antagonizing any of the parties.
On the one hand, Beijing refuses to condemn the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and supports UN resolution 2216 on Yemen, which bans arms sales to the Houthi fighters. On the other hand, China has called for a ceasefire and supports the UN Security Council playing a constructive role in resolving the conflict through political means.
For example, President Xi Jinping had a telephone conversation with King Salman of Saudi Arabia to express his concerns over the Yemeni crisis and the growing instability in the region and urged his Saudi counterpart to find a political resolution to the conflict. However, in a meeting with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab-African Affairs Hossein Amirabdollahian, China’s special envoy on Middle East affairs, Gong Xiaosheng, stressed the necessity of respecting countries’ sovereignty and regional cooperation to resolve regional crisis through political means.
Thus, the Chinese officials advocated a political solution to the Saudi envoy but did not directly criticize the Saudi intervention. At the same time, they also signaled to Iran that Beijing preferred diplomacy that would not impinge on Yemen’s sovereignty. These complementary messages are part of the cautious approach and balancing act that signals that Beijing did not side with either camp but emphasized the importance of peaceful resolution through political negotiations in a multilateral setting.
In another balancing act, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was scheduled to visit the Middle East and Pakistan in April 2015, was forced to cancel his visit to Saudi Arabia. The Chinese president’s choice to make his first visits in the region to Egypt and Saudi Arabia demonstrates the importance of these countries to Beijing. However, the Yemen crisis disrupted President Xi Jinping’s Middle East travel plans: visiting Saudi Arabia would give the impression that Beijing supported Saudi military intervention in Yemen, which would be unacceptable to the Iranians and harmful to China’s balanced and neutral policy vis-à-vis the Yemen crisis.
The ongoing crisis in Yemen will be a tough test for China’s ability to take a more assertive role without choosing sides or dragging the region deeper into sectarian chaos. Generally, the Chinese approach doesn’t require the expenditure of significant human and material resources in mediating regional conflicts or civil wars. This approach is particularly pronounced in the Middle East, where China’s influence on regional issues is surprisingly marginal, even as its growing energy dependency is compelling deeper partnerships with the countries in the region. The problem is that Beijing does not want to choose sides in a region that regularly demands it.
Therefore, China’s most difficult future balancing act will be trying to maintain good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran amid escalating regional and sectarian competition.
CHALLENGES AND IMPLICATIONS
The Yemeni civil war has caused an extremely tense situation in the Middle East that could pose challenges and have implications for the security and stability of the region and affect broader Chinese national interests, including economic, strategic, and security interests.
First and foremost, the Yemen conflict could have a negative impact on the Chinese President’s proposed “One Belt and One Road” initiative. This plan is to link China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe (the Baltic), connecting China with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean through Central Asia and West Asia, and with Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean. The new Silk Road initiative would give China strategic control over the grandest stretch of a global trade highway and facilitate ties with Europe (the most important economic partner). The consequence will be expanding China’s economic and strategic influence westward through Central Asia and the Middle East at the expense of U.S. supremacy.
Moreover, the “One Belt and One Road” initiative will become a significant instrument of Chinese balancing strategy in the twenty-first century. This initiative organizes multilateral cooperation that excludes Washington and strengthens bilateral relations with countries that either currently have weak ties with the United States or are perceived as having the potential or desire to distance themselves from U.S. influence. Eventually, the new Silk Road initiative will become a key element of Beijing’s strategy to construct its international order and to balance U.S. predominance.
In addition, the new Silk Road initiative will help Beijing to reduce its reliance on the western transfer road that creates strategic vulnerability for Chinese trade and energy security. This new Silk Road project would allow China to lock in an energy supply from the Central Asian energy exporting countries. It would also enable it to secure and improve supply routes for its oil imports and to facilitate the potential effects of supply cuts from the Middle East, Africa, or Russia.
The “One Belt and One Road” initiative has added an economic and strategic dimension to the developments in the Yemeni civil war, since the New Silk Route passes through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, controlled by Yemen, to the Red Sea. Yemen’s geographic location makes it important for the Chinese “One Belt and One Road” initiative. This includes Yemen’s proximity to the Horn of Africa, where Beijing has a substantial economic footprint, and its location on the Gulf of Aden, which makes it a strategic location for the Suez Canal.
The ongoing crisis in Yemen could threaten one of the world’s most important oil chokepoints. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 3.8 million barrels of oil and refined petroleum products pass through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait each day on their way to Europe, Asia, and the United States, making it the world’s fourth busiest chokepoint. Therefore, the worst case scenario for China would be if Houthis rebels were to seize control of the seaport of Aden and obstruct the waterway transport in the Gulf of Aden or blockade the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea.
From China’s point of view, closing the Bab al-Mandeb Strait could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or SUMED Pipeline, which could cause a disruption in the trading activities for energy products. These are expensive and dangerous scenarios for Chinese energy security, since roughly half of its oil imports come from the Persian Gulf. Moreover, Beijing has a growing dependence on crude oil imports from the Gulf region and has wide-ranging relationships with the Gulf States, which have been steadily expanding and deepening. In such a scenario, China may be required to abandon the principle of non-interference to protect its expanding economic interests.
Second, the Yemen conflict could jeopardize Beijing’s economic investment in the country and the safety of Chinese citizens. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, Beijing has 14 enterprises and 460 personnel in Yemen, with trade projects concentrating on oil extraction, telecommunication, construction, roads and bridges, and fishery. Furthermore, Yemen exports about 1.4 to 1.5 million barrels of Masila crude each month, mainly to China. While the volume is relatively small, China’s crude imports from Yemen in the first two months of 2015 increased 315 percent from the same period in 2014.
However, geopolitical tensions in Yemen might push the oil prices higher and damage China’s economy and energy security strategy. Although Yemen is not a large producer in the region, it is primarily its location as a trade hub that could cause a disruption in the trading activities for energy products. As long as the Yemen crisis is contained, the price of oil is not expected to rise nor will there be a disruption in the trading activities for energy products. However, the intensification of sectarian warfare in the region could lead to these outcomes and also threaten China’s key Middle Eastern petroleum producers (Iran and Saudi Arabia).
In addition, in response to the Yemeni civil war, China’s navy has evacuated 225 foreign nationals and almost 600 Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden. This was the first time that the Chinese navy was sent to rescue foreign citizens, and only the second time that Beijing has used warships to evacuate its own citizens from a conflict zone, although not the Chinese navy’s first evacuation mission abroad. Since the 1990s, China has launched several missions to evacuate its citizens overseas. For instance, in 2011, China evacuated its citizens from Libya, the largest mission ever undertaken by the country.
While Chinese evacuation may make it seems as though China is cutting its losses, it may actually serve an important strategic purpose. Domestically, the Chinese navy’s swift evacuation of its citizens from Yemen demonstrated that the government has a responsibility to protect all Chinese nationals around the world. Internationally, China’s successful high-profile naval operation in a conflict zone demonstrated Beijing’s interest in maintaining its great power status and showed its growing global power.
Another challenge to China presented by the Yemeni civil war is to prevent extremist elements from providing training and inspiration to Muslim separatists in western China. Generally, the containment of Islamist terrorists is a key element that has guided Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East. Since the 1990s, Beijing has claimed that the terrorist activities in Xinjiang were connected to al-Qa’ida and publicly expressed concerns that Uighurs who joined the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) would return to China to engage in extremist and terrorist activities.
From Beijing’s point of view, the crisis in Yemen also threatens the implementation of a nuclear agreement with Iran, due to the conflict between the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led military coalition, aided by the United States. There are thus fears that the Yemeni conflict could interfere with the already tense Iranian nuclear deal.
The Saudi-led military coalition is also Riyadh’s response to what it sees as U.S. rapprochement with Tehran as a result of the nuclear deal and its feeling that Washington is stepping back and leaving a vacuum in the Gulf region. For China, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are political and economic partners, and particularly important sources of oil for its energy security. Yet China has become Iran’s largest trading partner, has bought roughly half of Iran’s total crude exports, and is the only major player still active in the Iranian oil industry since sanctions against Iran were tightened in 2012. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is Beijing’s most important source of oil in the Middle East. Riyadh’s political and economic influences make it one of Beijing’s most critical partners, not just in the Persian Gulf, but in the broader West Asia-North Africa region. Therefore, the Yemen conflict will be a tough test of Beijing’s ability to maintain good relations simultaneously with both Riyadh and Tehran.
The Yemeni civil war is pushing the Middle East closer to a wider regional conflagration and has added a new layer of unpredictability to the many, multidimensional conflicts that have turned large swaths of the region into war zones. The complexity of the Yemeni sectarian conflict has manifested itself fully in the way Chinese non-interference policy attempts to balance the aforementioned interests. On the one hand, China continues to side with Iran and its allies in the region to contain Washington and its allies’ influences in the Middle East. On the other hand, it is employing a cautious balancing act to avoid a fragmented and unstable Yemen, which would intensify conflict and terrorism in the region.
This article has examined whether the continued conflict in Yemen is expected to make a substantial impact on China’s non-interference policy in the region. The findings suggest that while the conflict in Yemen presents certain challenges to Chinese foreign policy in the region, it still does not require a major change in Beijing’s non-intervention behavior. However, the prolongation of the Yemeni civil war could threaten China’s broader national interests–economic, strategic, and security–which would force Beijing to gradually abandon its non-interference policy. To be sure, China has always intervened in the Middle East, and still does, mainly related to keeping the peace, managing conflicts, and seeking regional security. Beijing certainly has the capabilities to interfere in conflicts in the region but has lacked the will to get heavily involved in military conflict in the Middle East, as everywhere else in the world. It continues to demonstrate its formal commitment (at least in its rhetoric) to the non-intervention principle.
In addition, this article examined whether there has been a noticeable change in China’s foreign policy in the context of the conflict in Yemen. Beijing’s reaction to the Yemeni civil war may well elicit a response from other great powers and the countries in the region. However, from China’s point of view, at least for now, the implementation of a nuclear agreement with Iran and regional stability are a much higher priority for the international community than the Yemen crisis. Thus, China’s stance on the Yemen conflict and the ongoing Middle East crisis is in fact much closer to that of the great powers.
The escalating crisis in Yemen poses challenges for China’s interests and the core principle of its foreign policy in the Middle East. For a long time, Beijing did not perceive conflicts in the region as having a direct impact on its interests, but due to its emergence as a dominant trading partner and its desire to build a sphere of influence, it has become a responsible stakeholder in the Middle East. As such, China acknowledges that it shares the great burden of ensuring Middle East peace and stability.
One practical step in this direction was already taken when China acted to prevent Pakistan from joining the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthi rebels, which inevitably would have led to an escalation in the Yemen conflict. According to Pakistani officials, Chinese President Xi assured his Pakistani counterpart that China would stand behind Islamabad in the event of its ties unraveling with the Arab world. China’s assurance of $46 billion in economic investment and assistance to Pakistan was one of the factors that persuaded Islamabad turn down the Saudi request for military support for its campaign against Houthi rebels, despite immense pressure from Riyadh. Therefore, it is almost inevitable that China must forgo strict compliance with its non-intervention policy and become proactively involved in the region.
*Dr. Mordechai Chaziza is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics and Governance, Ashkelon Academic College, Israel.
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