China’s refusal to control Houthis Dangerous for the US
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 15 Feb , 2024

US National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan met Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Thailand on January 27 and 28, 2024, to use its good offices with Tehran to reign in the Houthis. China refused to exert pressure on Iran indirectly on Houthis to keep Red Sea region free from carrying out attacks on countries that support Israel. Resultantly, it has put the United States in a dangerous situation where it now has to manage three global flashpoints Syria, Lebanon and Israel. 

The meeting was “part of the effort to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage competition in the relationship as directed by the leaders,” the statement said, about a long-planned presidential summit in November that kicked off a reset process after prolonged bilateral acrimony. Following the meeting, either side’s official statements did not mention the issue. The Chinese foreign ministry also called the talks “productive”, saying both sides discussed global issues including the Middle East, but did not provide details. Either side’s official statements did not mention the issue. The meeting seems to be an exercise in futility. Beijing realizes a need to end the human toll in Gaza and address the region’s emotional and diplomatic upheaval against Israel. It would have tried to snatch an opportunity to get the US to convince Israel for a ceasefire. 

The Houthis have so far been attacking only Israeli merchant vessels and American and British warships but have spared Russian and Chinese ships – although the latter has been reported to be avoiding the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden route. However, China views the Houthis’ Red Sea attacks are only a direct spillover of the Gaza conflict and the “resultant humanitarian” crisis. 

The US finds itself in a position where only its arch-strategic rivals – Iran, China, and Russia – can help it manage a volatile situation and prevent it from being drawn into another war in the Middle East. Actually, Iran is the main party that is supporting Houthis with the latest arms, ammunition, missiles and drones clandestinely but refuses to accept its involvement. Tehranrejects US claims that it is ‘deeply involved’ in Houthi attacks in Red Sea.

China did improve ties with Tehran before the pandemic, which were bolstered even further after the rapprochement it brokered with long-standing rival Saudi Arabia.Even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) resumed diplomacy with Iran over the last two years, and both the Emiratis and the Saudis hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin early in December last year. 

This marked the unmistakable preference towards Russia and China as the new strategic and economic partners of the region’s three most prominent players – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. This, therefore, casts doubt over American expectations, especially when the Houthis have demonstrated significant autonomy from Iran and not necessarily being entirely under its tutelage. 

Washington’s official framing of the agenda with China attempts to strip its image as the party seeking help. NSC spokesman John Kirby said China can “have conversations with Iranian leaders that we can’t. And so, what we’ve said repeatedly is: we would welcome a constructive role by China, using the influence and access we know they have, to try to help stem the flow of weapons and munitions to the Houthis,” Kirby said. 

China, therefore, is surprised at the US’s attempts to enlist its help from Iran and the Houthis. It believes Washington seeks Beijing’s cooperation in aligning global concerns while continuing to challenge it strategically. Beijing’s message is that Washington cannot continue to challenge it strategically and seek cooperation on common areas of concern like the Middle East, climate change or the post-COVID global economy. 

China views this as the US’s “perplexing contradiction in its approach toward China’s involvement with the Middle East.” While Washington harbours a “sense of envy” towards China’s relations in the Middle East, it must now also recognise that cooperation with Beijing is an “imperative” for diplomacy in the Arab world. 

Washington’s poor military strategic prospects for this new ‘two-front war’ is not lost on its leaders. It has suddenly found itself on a collision course with Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq and possibly with Iran itself following the death of three US soldiers in the Jordan outpost attack. 

The Houthis, as a matter of fact, are a militarily and tactically proficient non-state actor with a rare conventional arms arsenal and will be far from defeated or deterred by overwhelming US naval and air power. They have already displayed their technical ingenuity with low-cost missiles and drones to harrow large modern warships. 

The biggest American worry is that there is a downward trend of the US economy. Though the economy occasionally sputtered in 2022, it has certainly been resilient — and now, in the first month of 2024, the U.S. is still not currently in a recession, according to a traditional definition.As of December 2023, total federal debt was $33.1 trillion; $26.5 trillion held by the public and $12.1 trillion in intragovernmental debt. The annualised cost of servicing this debt was $726 billion in July 2023, which accounted for 14 per cent of the total federal spending. If the present US involvement in the Middle East and Ukraine continues  for a few more months its economy will have serious consequences.  In view of the US forthcoming elections there is a great pressure on the American President Joe Biden to end the war lest he loses elections despite hope against hopes.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col (Dr) PK Vasudeva

is author of World Trade Organisation: Implications for Indian Economy, Pearson Education and also a former Professor International Trade.

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