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China depends heavily on the Red Sea. Why isn't it doing more to stop rebel attacks?


The U.S. and its allies have been launching strikes against Houthi targets to try to stop the militants' attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea. Although the Houthis remain defiant. Noticeably missing in the coalition is China. Despite its economic reliance on the Red Sea, its sitting on the sidelines of the crisis. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Red Sea is one of the world's most important shipping routes. China, in particular, depends heavily on the waterway for its commercial ships to move goods from Asia to Europe.

ISAAC KARDON: The Red Sea is part of what Chinese analysts call their maritime lifeline. It is fundamentally important to the economic and political model that Chinese leaders are pursuing.

NORTHAM: Isaac Kardon is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focusing on Chinese maritime affairs. He says despite four months of attacks by Iranian-backed Houthis that have upended global trade, Beijing has stayed mute on the crisis.

KARDON: We have not seen China do or say anything especially forceful on this issue, despite the extreme risk to maritime trade that's so essential to China.

NORTHAM: Beijing has been trying to enhance its influence in the Middle East for many years and it does have some leverage in the region. It buys the majority of crude oil exports from Iran, says Neil Thomas, a fellow on Chinese politics at the Asia Society's Center for China analysis.

NEIL THOMAS: There are reports that China has lobbied Iranian officials to curb the activities of Houthi rebels in the Red Sea and suggested that it would be in, you know, China and Iran's interests if these attacks ceased or at least subsided. But it doesn't seem like that has necessarily fully paid off yet.

NORTHAM: Dr. Yu Jie is a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank based in London. She says Beijing's strategy for the Middle East is in line with its approach to other global conflicts.

YU JIE: That is to say, never taking a side. Do not get involved in the domestic affairs of another particular country. So I think on the one hand, yes, China has - somehow has a very strong economic interest to restrain Iran. But then, on the other hand, I think there's the so-called noninterference principle that really make Beijing hold it back.

NORTHAM: China's low-key approach has led some critics to call it a free rider. Its ships are passing through the Red Sea under the protection of the U.S. coalition. But when conflict began, it stayed quiet. Kardon, with the Carnegie Institute, says it's a reality check to what kind of global power China aspires to be.

KARDON: It's definitely a seminal moment for China, staking out a role as a great power player in the Middle East. And yet, when the region is in turmoil, they are pretty passive. They're sitting around watching the United States perform this protection of free navigation that China depends on.

NORTHAM: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan prodded senior Chinese officials to join the coalition to battle the Houthis. China has been building up its blue water navy and has a military base in Djibouti, but it's also got economic woes back home. Thomas, with the Asia Society, says Beijing just simply isn't interested in military involvement in the Red Sea.

THOMAS: So far, it's focused a lot more on the economic side of that ledger than on the security side basically because the economic side is China's strength.

NORTHAM: But if world trade continues to suffer because of the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, analysts say China may finally be compelled to step in and help resolve the crisis. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAY SUE ME'S "THE MEMORY OF THE TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.