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US urges China to help curb Red Sea attacks by Iran-backed Houthis

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The US has asked China to urge Tehran to rein in Iran-backed Houthi rebels attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea, but has seen little sign of help from Beijing, according to American officials.

Officials have repeatedly raised the matter with top Chinese officials in the past three months, asking them to convey a warning to Iran not to inflame tensions in the Middle East after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing war.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy, Jon Finer, discussed the issue in meetings this month in Washington with Liu Jianchao, head of the Chinese Communist party’s international department, according to US officials. Secretary of state Antony Blinken also raised it, said a state department official.

But US officials said there was little evidence China had put any pressure on Iran to restrain the Houthis, beyond a mild statement Beijing issued last week calling on “relevant parties” to ensure safe passage for vessels sailing through the Red Sea, a critical shipping route for global trade.

On Wednesday, the Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing was calling for a stop to “disturbance to civilian ships” and had “been in close communication with various parties and worked actively to alleviate the tension in the Red Sea”.

However, in veiled criticism of the US and UK attacks on the Houthis, the ministry urged the “relevant parties to avoid adding fuel to the fire”, adding that the UN Security Council had “never authorised the use of force by any country on Yemen”.

The Red Sea tension was also a “spillover” from the Gaza conflict, which should be ended as soon as possible, the ministry said.

The diplomatic push on Beijing comes as the US and allies continue to bomb Houthi positions in Yemen in response to at least 33 Houthi attacks on commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea since mid-November. The US and UK carried out widespread strikes again on Monday.

The Houthis are backed by Iran, which has enjoyed deeper commercial and diplomatic ties with China in recent years.

One official said the US would continue to raise the issue of Iran and the Houthi attacks with Beijing but was not optimistic that China’s attitude would change.

Another US official said there had been “some signs” of China engaging on the issue, but not in a significant way. “I wouldn’t want to overstate either how much they’ve done or what impact it has had,” the official said.

John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, on Tuesday said Washington would “welcome a constructive role by China, using the influence and the access that we know they have to . . . help stem the flow of weapons, ammunitions to the Houthis”.

Liu, who is viewed as a top candidate to become Chinese foreign minister, travelled to Iran in December. His visit came days after US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, held a summit in San Francisco.

US officials had hoped Beijing would take action because it viewed the Houthi attacks as a menace to its own commercial interests, given that the Red Sea was a critical route for Chinese exports to Europe.

Ahead of the San Francisco summit, US officials repeatedly urged China to use whatever leverage it had with Iran — whose proxy groups in Iraq and Syria have also targeted American military bases — amid concerns that the Israel-Hamas war could spiral into a broader conflict in the Middle East.

Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA China expert now at Georgetown University, said Beijing had “worked assiduously” to court Middle Eastern nations, including Iran, for economic and geopolitical gain. But he said it would be “very reluctant to use its limited influence with the Islamic state in a way that it perceives advance US interests without benefit to China”.

US officials have also pressed the effort at the UN Security Council, where China is a permanent member, according to a second state department official.

The US has launched eight rounds of missile strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen over the past two weeks in response to the attacks on shipping, including the joint strike with the UK military on Monday.

Suzanne Maloney, head of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said she had discussed the issue with Chinese experts and had not detected any serious appetite to help.

“I think what they’ve calculated . . . is that this is a crisis that’s bogging the US and its partners down and it has not had a significant impact on Chinese shipping.”

Ma Xiaolin, a professor at Zhejiang International Studies University, said he believed Liu’s visit to Iran in December was not coincidental and that he would have conveyed Chinese demands regarding the need for security.

Ma, an expert on China’s relations with the Middle East, said: “China wishes for the restoration of peace in the Red Sea region and for international shipping to be secure, which aligns with the interests of all parties because this is an important global trade route.”

The Chinese embassy in the US said it had no details about the exchanges with Liu, but that China was concerned about the “escalating tension” in the Red Sea. The embassy said it served the common interests of the international community and that China urged “relevant parties to play a constructive and responsible role in keeping the Red Sea safe and stable”.

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