Yes, China pressured Iran on Red Sea attacks – but only to protect its own ships

 Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (L) being welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) in Beijing, China on February 14, 2023. (Photo by Presidency of Iran / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (L) being welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) in Beijing, China on February 14, 2023. (Photo by Presidency of Iran / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A Reuters report on 26 January claimed that China recently attempted to nudge Iran into reining in Houthi attacks against civilian ships in the Red Sea.

However, the report created confusion about precisely what Beijing’s demands were.
The prevailing narrative has been that China asked Iran to refrain from impeding international shipping, and to abandon its strategy of linking such attacks to the war in Gaza. However, this is misleading.

Chinese interests only

China may indeed have pressed Iran in the past weeks. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters, ‘China has been making active efforts to ease tensions in the Red Sea from the very beginning.’

An Iranian official confirmed those talks, arguing, ‘Basically, China says: “If our interests are harmed in any way, it will impact our business with Tehran. So tell the Houthis to show restraint”.’

This only reveals that China’s efforts were focused exclusively on extracting guarantees to protect China’s direct interests. There is no evidence to suggest Beijing was in any way interested in putting its credibility on the line to push for a full de-escalation in the Red Sea.

It was not long before China’s threats produced results. The Houthis granted Chinese and Russian ships immunity.

Now, every day, over 30 vessels transiting the Red Sea announce their affiliation with China or having Chinese citizens abroad. Smaller Chinese shipping lines are enjoying their safe passage to double down on serving regional ports such as Doraleh in Djibouti, Hodeidah in Yemen, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and Sokhna in Egypt.

China’s conundrum

China is adopting this low-risk, wait-and-see approach because it can’t afford other options.

Chinese leaders may be serious about their threats to Iran. They don’t want to be forced to adopt a dramatic policy shift and jump into the foray because a Chinese ship has been sunk or seriously damaged.

But US expectations from China regarding Iran’s regional influence were overblown and unrealistic at best: China doesn’t enjoy the leverage over Iran the US believes it can apply.

True, China bought 90 per cent of Iran’s oil in 2023, which amounted to 10 per cent of China’s total imported oil. But this spike came only due to the Biden administration’s easing of restrictions on Iran’s oil exports – not as part of a unilateral Chinese initiative to rescue the Iranian economy.

In fact, Chinese investments are a contentious point in bilateral relations. Tehran and Beijing signed a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ agreement in March 2021, of which Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) into Iran is a key pillar.

However, China’s investments have tenuously increased by only $185 million since then. In the same period, China signed investment and construction contracts worth $16.7 billion with Saudi Arabia, $3.8 billion with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), $3.6 billion with Kuwait, $2 billion with Qatar and $520 billion with Oman, respectively, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s ‘ China Global Investment Tracker,’ based in Washington DC.

This wobbly economic relationship limits China’s influence and fuels Iranian officials’ frustration at Beijing’s reluctance to do more to alleviate the pressures on their economy. This, in turn creates a political fracture within Tehran’s ruling elites over the ‘Look East’ policy’s viability.

Even if, in a hypothetical scenario, China did have clout over Iranian decision-making, it is inconceivable it would deploy it to prop up the Biden administration’s regional agenda or save it from the Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) conundrum.

Arab perceptions

The Red Sea crisis is just one of the pieces that shape Iran’s regional puzzle. In addition to bringing the war in Gaza to an end, Iran has several other strategic objectives not related to the war: to accelerate the exodus of the US military from the region by making its positions in Iraq and Syria untenable; to control navigation and shipping traffic in the Red Sea; and to raise the cost of a Saudi–Israel normalization deal after the war.

China recognizes Iran’s long game in the region and the heavy price it inflicts on the US position: undermining US regional influence gives weight to Beijing’s narrative.

But it can’t explicitly support Iran in public. This is because China strictly adheres to a non-interference policy that allows it to balance its relations with Iran and its Arab arch-rivals on the other side of the Gulf.

Western diplomats and analysts have used China’s careful position on the current regional transformation to suggest Arab countries are disappointed by Beijing’s ‘lack of influence’ – but this narrative is off the mark.

It is built on the inaccurate assumption that Arab countries were confused about China’s appetite to play a significant security and political role after mediating a remarkable deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran last March.

Arab officials have no illusions about China’s interest only in doing business. Those officials themselves neither encourage nor wish to be squeezed between the US and China’s security ambitions in MENA.

For China, it makes sense to intervene with Iran, but only to guarantee its interests. As long as those interests are protected, Beijing will have fewer incentives to apply further pressure toward a full de-escalation.

Chinese officials know that any attempt to make magnanimous demands of Iran and the Houthis, to halt their attacks in the Red Sea or elsewhere, will be unrealistic and could backfire – creating additional pressure on China –Iran relations. China will not go down this path.

Ahmed Aboudouh, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.

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