China places risky bet on Iranian partnership for maritime security


Despite the critical importance of Bab al-Mandeb to its maritime trade, China lacks the ability to force Iran's cooperation.

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Gantry cranes and shipping containers are shown in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, China, on April 12. [AFP]
Gantry cranes and shipping containers are shown in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, China, on April 12. [AFP]

Recent tensions in the Red Sea have shone a spotlight on the importance of the Bab al-Mandeb strait for China's global trade.

China, a key Iranian ally, is the world's largest exporter of goods and a top player in the global shipping industry, and would be one of the countries worst affected by any disruption to shipping through the Red Sea.

Since last November, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have been causing chaos in the Red Sea by attacking its shipping lanes. The risk of drone and missile attacks on civilian sailors has forced ship diversions around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, leading to increased cost and transit times.

The rerouting of ships has caused higher congestion at ports across Asia and led to shortages of shipping containers at other ports that are experiencing reduced traffic.

Bab al-Mandeb is a strait at the southern tip of the Red Sea, tucked between the coasts of Djibouti and Yemen. It connects the Red Sea's vital shipping lanes to the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal and serves as an important maritime connection between Asia and Europe.

Chinese trade contributes the most to the total value of trade flowing through the strait each year.

An estimated $120 billion of Chinese imports and $160 billion of Chinese exports (respectively 8% and 10.6% of total maritime trade) travel through the strait annually.

Economic ramifications for China

Despite China's reliance on the strait, it has not condemned the Houthis' attacks and has been conspicuously absent from the international coalition safeguarding the Red Sea.

Behind the scenes, Beijing says it has attempted to place pressure on Iran but has seemingly failed to force cooperation.

Despite relying on Chinese purchases of its petroleum, Tehran has proved a fickle partner to Beijing. Ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis even struck a Chinese-owned vessel in March, which neither nation addressed publicly.

In January, Iran dispatched warships to the Red Sea through Bab al-Mandeb in a purported effort to prevent piracy and secure shipping lanes. Yet, Houthi attacks persist.

The failure of China and Iran to move the needle indicates that neither nation possesses the political capabilities to keep Bab al-Mandeb open.

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