By Isaac Kardon and Jennifer Kavanagh
Mr. Kardon is an expert on Chinese maritime power. Ms. Kavanagh is expert on U.S. defense and foreign policy.
There has been plenty of hand-wringing in the West about the prospect of China displacing — or at least rivaling — the United States as the world’s leading superpower. But the evolving security crisis in the Red Sea makes clear that this remains a distant prospect.
China, with a trade-led economy dependent on the free flow of commerce through chokepoints like the Bab el-Mandeb strait off Yemen, relies on the United States to protect international sea lanes. The U.S.-led military response to the Houthi militia attacks on international shipping may not ultimately be the answer to the current crisis — the Houthis, so far, appear undeterred — but the United States has at least demonstrated a clear commitment to keeping open vital trade routes that connect China to the Middle East and Europe.
Rather than acting like the global leader it purports to be, China has made no appreciable move to shoulder the costs or risks of ensuring security in the Red Sea, despite having its sole declared overseas military base in Djibouti, adjacent to the strait. Nor has it publicly offered a viable alternative to America’s actions. Instead, it seems content to largely sit back and offer veiled criticism of the U.S. military response.
Beijing is playing a cynical game, free-riding on the same American power that it holds in contempt, trying to have it both ways.
For China’s leaders, there is a certain strategic logic to this. The Red Sea crisis distracts the United States from focusing on Asia, buying China time to marshal its capabilities in the western Pacific while presenting itself as a benevolent power that does not meddle in other countries’ affairs. In at least one important way, it’s working: Houthi leaders have allowed Chinese commercial ships to sail unscathed through the Red Sea, apparently in return for China’s noninterference in the conflict.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, was due to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Thailand on Friday and Saturday to discuss the situation, according to U.S. officials. The United States must call out China for its duplicity and pressure it to start acting like a responsible power — and in its own self-interest — by sharing some of the burden of protecting trade routes and using its influence on Iran to end the Houthi attacks on shipping.
Chinese leaders aspire to greater status in the region. President Xi Jinping has promised to “contribute Chinese wisdom to promoting peace and tranquillity in the Middle East” and has unveiled a raft of corresponding security and development initiatives in recent years. In reality, however, China’s actions in the Middle East are driven partly by a desire to challenge U.S. power. In the Israel-Gaza war, for instance, China has joined Russia and Iran in throwing nominal support behind Hamas and refusing to denounce the group’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.
The deteriorating security situation in the Middle East shows how ineffectual Mr. Xi’s promotion of peace and tranquillity has been, and it’s coming back to bite China. About half of its imported oil comes from the Middle East, and the Red Sea provides critical access to Europe, one of China’s largest export markets. Even with the Houthis giving a pass to ships flying the Chinese flag, the country’s shipping and exporters are being squeezed by the commercial disruption.
A prolonged regional crisis could heighten pressure on the Communist Party at home, where its economy already faces strong headwinds and can ill afford the risks of tangled supply chains and soaring shipping and insurance rates. In the longer-term, Beijing’s reputation may suffer if it comes off looking like an opportunistic non-player in the region.
The crisis in the Red Sea is a reminder of the vulnerability of the world’s commercial trade and the shared responsibility to protect it. Washington has a fundamental interest in safeguarding the freedom of the seas, both as a basic international norm and for American economic benefit. But a stable, open maritime trading system is a public good that demands more active burden-sharing from stakeholders like China.
Publicly, China has said little about the Houthi attacks on international shipping, aside from issuing vague calls for an end to the “harassment” of civilian vessels. Its role as Iran’s economic lifeline affords China with substantial influence. But Beijing seems unwilling or unable to restrain Tehran from pouring more fuel on the regional fire or providing support to the Houthi militias, undermining China’s effectiveness as a security patron; by taking advantage of its free pass through the Red Sea, China is also tacitly lending legitimacy to the Houthi attacks against civilian targets.
China’s fledgling overseas forces may lack the confidence to take on a greater role in contested seas, and there are reasonable questions about whether encouraging a more forceful Chinese military presence in international waters is desirable from the Western standpoint. But this needn’t prompt too much worry in the West — there is so far little indication that China can or intends to project the level of military power abroad that the United States now does, beyond protecting its own commercial ships from piracy, as it has for more than a decade.
The United States should remind Beijing that its own long-term energy security and supply chains are at stake in the Red Sea and press it to act accordingly, as a constructive player, by, for instance, participating in coordinated crisis diplomacy to help resolve a mess that generates disproportionate risks for China. Washington should demonstrate a willingness to work with Beijing toward stability in the Middle East and encourage a greater Chinese commitment of its economic, diplomatic and perhaps even military weight to counter shared security threats.
As the world’s top trading state, China has long been and will remain a primary beneficiary of an open global trading system. America’s commitment to protecting that system cannot be guaranteed in perpetuity, especially if Beijing’s narrative of declining U.S. power is to be believed.
China’s seeming indifference to the Red Sea crisis reinforces the United States’ role as the world’s predominant power, and demonstrates that China’s capabilities and strategic objectives beyond its own region remain narrow and dependent on America’s global leadership.
Isaac Kardon (@ibkardon) is a senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “China’s Law of the Sea: The New Rules of Global Order.” Jennifer Kavanagh (@jekavanagh) is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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