After almost one decade of harrowing conflictappears to be Yemen towards a peace agreement.
Talks between the Houthi movement that controls much of the north of the country and Saudi Arabia, the regional power that supports an anti-Houthi coalition in the war, are in progress And his encouraged by international observers.
On May 1, 2023, the US announced it had shipped Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking to the Persian Gulf to “advance ongoing efforts to reach a new agreement and launch a comprehensive peace process.”
But the US plays much less of a role in steering the negotiations than Washington’s great global rival: China. The recent breakthrough in Yemen was aided by rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, facilitated by Beijing in March 2023.
As an academic specializing in Strategic engagement between the US and China in East Africa and the Middle East, I realize that the diplomatic breakthrough Beijing has achieved has implications for the region. It has the potential to reduce rivalry and bolster stability in Yemen along with other countries prone to sectarian violence, including Lebanon and Iraq.
But it has also sparked speculation about China’s emergence as a major regional player in the Middle East. Not just development challenges the United States long-term dominance in the Gulf, but it also raises questions about Beijing’s strategic agenda and motives.
Fragmentation and regional dynamics
It remains to be seen whether the Saudi Iranian breakthrough can contribute to a lasting peace in Yemen.
But given the role that the rivalry between the regional powers has played in it fuel the fightinghave international observers outspoken optimism.
The disintegration of Yemen began with the collapse of the central government in 2011 following the Arab Spring uprising. In 2014, the Houthi group, an Iranian-backed Shia militia, seized control of the capital Sanaa, forcing transitional president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Aden. Hadi’s government struggled to settle in Aden, eventually moving to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he resigned in 2022.
Viewing the Houthis as an Iranian proxySaudi Arabia intervened in the Yemeni conflict and supported those loyal to Hadi and Bombing Houthi areas from the air. This Attacks led by Saudi Arabia contributed to a massive humanitarian crisis. The conflict led to the death of at least 377,000 Yemenis, the United Nations predicted in 2021, much due to indirect causes such as hunger and disease. It has also led to widespread displacement of the civilian population and the collapse of infrastructure.
The country remains fragmented, with militias controlling individual areas and no functional central government.
China’s path through Saudi Arabia
So where does China come in? Beijing has no formal diplomatic, economic or political ties with all the many militias currently ruling parts of the country. But prior to 2014, China had a healthy trade and economic relationship with Yemen. According to the World Bank, that was China in 2013 Yemen’s second largest trading partner after Saudi Arabia.
Since 2014, trade between China and Yemen has continued, albeit in a largely informal manner. This is according to data from the International Trade Tracking Observatory of Economic Complexity China imported $411 million worth of productsmainly crude oil but also copper, from Yemen in 2021. What remains unclear is which rebel factions received income through trade.
Meanwhile, China has formally maintained diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – each supporting militias involved in the war in Yemen. In fact, China has intensified its economic and political ties with all three regional powers.
In recent years, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has done just that visited both the UAE And Saudi Arabia to underline Beijing’s growing role as a partner in the region. Xi too recently received Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a state visit to China.
What can be gained from peace?
This growing relationship with key players in the Yemeni conflict puts China in a unique position as a potential peace broker. However, it has so far proved difficult to unite the three regional powers around a common peace plan.
The UAE can influence Yemeni factions to which it has provided military and financial support, including the “Seatbelt” forcesjoined the transitional government. However, the goals of the Emirates may differ from those seeking a united, independent Yemen. Since the outbreak of the conflict, the UAE has shown a tendency to undermine Yemen’s territorial integrity by, for example, control over some Yemeni islands, such as Socotra .
Similarly, Iran may be reluctant to accept a peace deal that would reduce its influence in Yemen. Tehran’s relationship with the Houthis not been so consistentsolid as some outside observers suggest, but have ties grown as a result of the conflict . If hostilities ceased, the Houthis’ military dependence on Iran would diminish, reducing Iran’s influence.
Saudi Arabia, of the three, will benefit most from peace in Yemen. Ending the conflict would probably stop it Houthi attackson the kingdom, save the Saudis money and resources devoted to the Yemeni war, and possibly restore an international reputation tarnished by alleged war crimes in the conflict .
To bring about peace in Yemen, China should presumably focus its efforts on cooperation with the Saudis.
The China-backed rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could be a first step in this direction. While Yemen is not directly mentioned in the language of the agreement, it is speaks of the support of both sides for “the non-interference in the internal affairs of States” and “the readiness to make every effort to strengthen regional and international peace and security”.
And since that agreement in March, progress has been made towards peace in Yemen. A Saudi delegation led by the kingdom’s ambassador to Yemen held talks with Houthi leaders in Sanaa on April 9. The talks were the first direct negotiations between the two sides on Yemeni soil since the war began in 2015.
Thinking in Beijing
But why is China invested in what is happening in an ongoing conflict far from its borders – especially when it is already consumed perceived strategic and military threats closer to home?
The argument that would be a cessation of hostilities in Yemen Grant China economic benefits Through which gives access to the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb– an important strategic conduit in the Arabian Peninsula for trade and commerce, through which an estimated 4% of the world’s oil supply passes – I think it ignores a number of critical factors. Rebuilding a war-ravaged Yemen and establishing a stable government can take time – and the investment required may outweigh the short-term economic benefits.
Moreover, China has already done so a military base in Djiboutiallowing it access to the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb even without peace in Yemen.
China may be trying to be seen as a global peacemaker as part of a strategy referred to as “diplomatic laundering — that is, making friends abroad and playing the “nice guy” to distract from China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority home and Xi’s more and more confrontational attitude in Taiwanand the South China Sea.
But it also fits into a broader geopolitical trend. The counterbalance to China’s growing role in the Middle East is the declining influence of the United States in the region.
Washington priorities have shifted to strategic interests in East Asia and Ukraine leading to a diplomatic opportunity for China – one Beijing is eager to seize.
Meanwhile, relations between the US and Saudi Arabia have cooled, partly due to the Yemeni war. And Washington has had no formal diplomatic relations with Iranfor decades.
As a neutral player, China can cooperate with Tehran and Riyadh in a way that the US simply cannot. This was evident in China’s role in the rapprochement, and it could also be the case in resolving the war in Yemen.
For China, it offers opportunities for another diplomatic success that could emerge as a reliable partner in a changing geopolitical landscape.