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Intensifying Conflict in the Red Sea

Jan 31, 2024
  • He Wenping

    Senior Research Fellow, Charhar Institute and West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

The Red Sea crisis, sparked by the Houthi assault on international merchant vessels, has recently shown signs of escalating danger. Initially, in the early hours of Jan. 12, the United States and the United Kingdom launched joint airstrikes on multiple targets under Houthi control within Yemen, prompting hundreds of thousands of Yemeni citizens to protest and show support for Palestine. Subsequently, on the evening of Jan. 15, Houthi forces struck a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Aden with several missiles.

The direct military clash between the U.S. and Houthi forces clearly does little to help resolve the crisis in the Red Sea. The challenges faced by the United States (despite its military prowess) in addressing the relatively small Houthi faction are intricately connected to the persistent Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the complexities in U.S. foreign policy.

First and foremost, the Houthi forces have linked their attacks on merchant and commercial shipping in the Red Sea to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seizing the rhetorical high ground on morality and justice. They assert that their targets are exclusively Israeli (or related merchant and commercial ships) traversing the Red Sea, and that their aim is to pressure Israel to cease its bombardment of Gaza, where they are in solidarity with the beleaguered Palestinian people. This stance is a clear attempt to distance Houthi actions from those of Somali pirates and to challenge the legitimacy of the U.S.-led multinational naval escort coalition in the Red Sea.

This strategic linkage has effectively prevented all Middle Eastern nations along the Red Sea coast, except Bahrain, from joining the escort coalition. It has also led the United States to be cautious about striking Houthi forces, for fear that doing so could inadvertently elevate the Houthis to the status of heroes in the Arab world fighting for the Palestinian cause.

Moreover, forceful action against the Houthis could further entangle U.S. interests with those of Israel, making it possible to portray the U.S. as an accomplice. This would help neither the Democratic Party’s prospects in the 2024 elections under President Joe Biden nor the global strategic interests of the United States.

Second, the Houthi insurgency is supported by Iran, and the strategy to counter them — whether to draw them out or warn them off — is not easy to calibrate. During the Donald Trump administration, Iran was labeled as a troublemaker in the Middle East, and containing it was a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region. The Biden administration has taken a less hard-line approach toward Iran than Trump did, even going as far as to remove the Houthis from its list of terrorist organizations. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensifies, the U.S. has staunchly supported Israel, while Iran has solidly backed Hamas, resulting in a rekindled and intensified adversarial relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

Washington believes the Houthi attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea are orchestrated by Iran. Striking at the Houthis is thus also a blow to Iran’s regional clout. However, an overly aggressive campaign could provoke Iranian countermeasures, or even lead to Iran joining the conflict alongside Hamas against Israel, a scenario the U.S. would prefer to avoid.

The U.S. campaign against the Houthis has not been sanctioned by the UN Security Council. On Jan. 10, the council passed Draft Resolution 2722 which addresses the Red Sea situation but does not authorize any nation to use force against Yemen. The military actions of the U.S. and the U.K. against a sovereign nation lack legal footing.

Moreover, the strikes could undermine the political process that aims to end Yemen’s civil war. Practically speaking, the strikes against the Houthis have intensified tensions in the Red Sea region and failed to protect commercial ships or safeguard freedom of navigation. The current Red Sea crisis has significantly disrupted global maritime shipping and supply chains, with detours around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope greatly increasing transportation costs and the time required for delivery of goods. It also has a negative impact on the global economic recovery in the post-pandemic era.

In light of all this, China and the Arab League, in a joint statement released on Jan. 14, said that efforts to resolve the Red Sea crisis must uphold and respect the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yemen, while also ensuring the security of international shipping lanes in the Red Sea. Defending against threats to the safety of shipping channels is a priority and essential element in international peace and security. All stakeholders should work toward de-escalation of tensions — by swiftly resolving the conflict in Gaza to prevent its effects from widening further, and by sincerely committing to the preservation of regional stability.

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