How Does China Look at South Yemen?


Thu, 24-03-2022 01:39 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

On November 30th 1967, People's Republic of China sent a congratulatory message to President Qahtan Al-Shaabi after South Yemen declared its independence from British colonialism. Al-Shaabi is the first president of what later became known as People's Democratic Republic of Yemen". As a result of this declaration, Premier, Xuan Lai, sent his congratulation. Moreover, Foreign Minister, Chen Yi, sent a congratulatory message to his Southern counterpart in which the Chinese Government recognized the new republic in South Yemen (1).

Prior to that, China recognized the Republic’s regime established in North Yemen on September 26th 1962. On October 6th of the same year, China sent congratulations to it. This happened although the relationship between China and the Mutawakkilite Kingdom was strong in the 1950s, as North Yemen was the first country in the Arab Peninsula and the third Arab country, after Egypt and Syria, that recognized the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a legitimate representative (2). However, China later stranded behind the Republic’s regime and also supported the Social state in South Yemen due to what can be described as convergence of the ideological interests as part of the Eastern camp which had backed the Western movements in the region at that time.

First, China relied upon demonstrating ideological power within its foreign policy to a large extent. Nevertheless, since the beginning of 1972, it adopted a more open policy towards the West, a new one which is more independent from the Soviet Union, especially after disputes about some Communist notions in the 1960s.Chinese leader "Deng Xiaoping" adopted a strategic economic vision known as "Reform and Openness" which aimed at attracting foreign capital investments. "Ciao" idea is based on the Social market economy as part of the "Open Door Policy" and thus, the active participation in the global economy is the perfect way for prosperity and development (3) .

Furthermore, China put much focus on the economic dimension in the Middle East and supported several Arab states including South Yemen. For example, the Chinese government helped in building a textile factory in Aden with production energy of 15000 spindles (4). It also gave it a zero-interest 43.2 million dollars loan with a repayment period of up to 20 years. Prior to that, China lent South Yemen a 9.6 million dollars loan after signing an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement with it (5)

It can be said that the Chinese- Yemeni trajectory has witnessed several agreements, protocols, proceedings and executive measures. From 1962 to 1990, North and South Yemen signed with the People's Republic of China about 38 agreements and protocols that included different fields of cooperation. After the Yemeni Unity, the number increased to reach the level of 47 agreements that included cooperation in all fields. By the end of 2013, there were more than 55 agreements and memorandums of understanding (6).

In 2014, after the Houthi control on Sanaa, China supported the regional and international initiatives to alleviate the severity of the conflict including the Gulf Initiative and its implementation mechanism as well as the National Dialogue Conference which preceded the crisis. Moreover, China voted in favor of the UNSC Resolution 2201 (7) which called on the Houthis for unconditional immediate withdrawal from Sanaa's governmental institutions and called on all parties to stop all armed hostilities against Yemeni people and its legitimate authorities. However, the Houthis and their then ally, Saleh, ignored the UNSC resolutions. In March 2015, Decisive Storm (Asifat Al-Hazm) Operation led by the KSA and a number of Arab countries.

China kept silent toward the Saudi-led airstrikes which were backed by the US and Britain. Although Beijing didn't support this military action, it didn't want to confront the Saudis or the major forces involved in Yemen. The Chinese Government was basically interested in securing its citizens in Yemen. In May and April, the People's Liberation navy forces evacuated 629 Chinese citizens and other 279 persons from other nationalities (8).

The Belt and Road

In September 2013, during a visit to Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a plan to establish a new "Silk Road" linking China to Europe known as "One Road-One Belt” whose investments are expected to reach between 4-8 trillion dollars (9). The “Belt and Road” Initiative includes a huge number of infrastructure projects extended from Asia to Europe. It reflects a comprehensive vision for China’s foreign policy. Some countries expressed optimism and welcomed the Initiative, but western states, including the US and its allies, are still dubious towards it.

China is accused of using the “Belt and Road” Initiative as part of manipulating global strategy aiming at funding the infrastructure projects in the developing countries with unsustainable loans in order to use such debts for gaining influence over those government in a policy known as “the Debt Trap Diplomacy” (10). However, Beijing denied those accusations. During the G7 Summit in 2021 after the outbreak of COVID-19, the western democracies attempted to present an alternative proposal. A joint statement entitled “Build Back Better World” proposed an alternative infrastructure initiative pushed by the major western democracies, led by the United States (11).

It is clear that the western initiative serves as an anti-project to counter the Chinese “Belt and Road” deemed by western forces as a threat which could enhance the Chinese influence. In other words, it is a project that will enable Begin to indirectly control the world and allow it to reshape the world order again. Due to such fears, the US and its allies decided to present an alternative project to rein in the Chinese expansion ambitions. It is not clear so far what will be the path of the Chinese and the American initiatives. It seems that the Chinese one, which began eight years ago , will achieve more progress, given that its was approved by many countries, especially in Asia with the exception of India.

The “Belt and Road '' Initiative, has been met with much welcome and wide scale response from the Arab states in general and the Gulf countries in particular. Many of them began to positively plan to match their strategies and development planes with the Initiative’s visions, goals and strategies. This includes “Saudi Vision 2030'', “Kuwait Vision 2035”, “UAE Vision to Revive the Silk Road”, “Qatar National Vision 2030” and “Oman Vision 2040”. Iran’s infrastructure projects which link them to Central Asia also accommodate the initiative (12).

Although the “Belt and Road” will pass through South Yemen’s strategic straits in Bab Al-Mandab, it has not so far determined how Yemen will be a basic station for his project, especially with the economic conditions of the country and the growing number of regional actors involved in it. In April 2019, Yemen signed a memorandum of understanding with China because of its strategic location importance, especially in South Yemen. Such a matter gives South Yemen big importance in this giant project if it is completed. This requires reaching to and making understandings with the political and military forces which control and protect these locations. 

In 2020, Chinese Ambassador in Yemen Kang Young said: “war prevented Yemen’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative” in spite of the high hopes that Yemen could play a vital role in this project given the historical role South Yemen and its ports previously played.

However, there are still some concerns related to the Chinese stance in spite of the moderation and neutrality it shows, especially regarding its policies for not deploying forces abroad. For example, the Chinese People's Liberation Army opened its first military bases in Djibouti in 2017 at the mouth of the Red Sea and off the Yemeni coasts in a very controversial move in one of the most important strategic main lanes. Although the declared goal behind opening the base is to fuel and back the Chinese maritime forces participating in peacekeeping operations and the humanitarian missions, (13)there are some existing doubts towards the Chinese activities in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, especially after seizing a shipment consisting of thousands of hidden offensive illegal weapons, automatic cannons and sniper rifles in the Arabian sea while it was likely on its way to Yemen. This included 3000 Chinese-made Kalashnikov assault rifles (model 56), according to the US Navy (14).

If these weapons were in their way to the Houthis, who are a main party in the Yemeni conflict, this reveals a contradictory Chinese stance which is supposedly seeks for stability, backing the international peace efforts in Yemen and helping in reconstruction and the resumption of the economic projects, mainly “the Belt and Road”.


The relationship with political forces

There is no doubt that the Chinese policies have been greatly affected by the Yemeni crisis since 2014. However, China is known for its non-intervention policy and the attempt to build strategic balanced relationships with all parties including the Arab Coalition countries which intervened in Yemen under the request of the internationally-recognized Hadi Government and other local parties. Despite the old and historic Chinese relationships with North and South Yemen, China is currently interested only in securing a stable region which paves a proper ground to enhance joint economic cooperation through which it can implement its projects, mainly the “Belt and Road”.

Certainly, this requires a strong relationship with regional countries which have direct impact over Yemen such as the KSA, the UAE, Iran and others. China’s calculations take into account those states as well as the local forces controlling the important strategic lanes to implement its economic policies. For example, Begin has a good relationship with the STC which controls important areas in South Yemen. It recognizes the Riyadh Agreement which established a parity government between North and South. The Chinese Ambassador previously met with the STC President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi as they discussed together the role, they are looking forward to playing in the Chinese Initiative, there was a stress on the STC’s vision to achieve renaissance as well as exploiting the economic and investment opportunities in South Yemen (15).

Furthermore, China has a somewhat good relationship with the Houthis as a local party in spite of its strong relationship with the KSA. It likely prefers to maintain its role as part of the mediation efforts and delivering aid. Emad Al-Azraq, Egyptian journalist who works at “Xinhua” asserts this vision by saying that “China stands at the same distance from the Yemeni crisis parties. Begin has repeatedly urged the Houthis to apply the UNSC resolutions through involvement in the UN-mediated negotiations and withdrawal of their forces from the government’s institutions. Moreover, China called on all parties interested in the Yemeni crisis to engage in a dialogue and solve the conflicts by negotiations to support the political transitions project as well as restore stability and order in the country (16).

China maintains good and strong relationships with the internationally-recognized Yemeni government as it regularly holds meetings with its members, especially after President Hadi’s visit to China in 2013 after taking office. The visit witnessed signing a number of agreements regarding the investment corporation between the two sides in all fields, mainly an agreement to expand and deepen the container terminal in Aden Port. 

In general, Al-Azraq told “South24” that the Chinese government’s foreign policy adopts a set of principles, top of which are not interfering in other nations’ internal affairs in addition to adopting a dialogue and negotiation approach as a base for solving disputes. This framework is the one which governs the Chinese stance towards the Yemeni crisis with all political actors. Dai Bing, Deputy Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations underscored such a view as he told the UNSC that the international community needs to commit to the political settlement in Yemen despite all existing challenges. He noted that China feels deep concerns towards this and urges all parties for an immediate cease-fire and putting an end to violence. 

Consequently, China needs to work with the Arab Coalition and the UN for a new multifaceted strategy to soften the conflict severity in Yemen. It also needs to build strong relationships with different Yemeni parties which have direct political and military impact on the ground. This includes rearranging its priorities towards the Southern actors. It is important for China, like other major states, to back a political settlement in Yemen that includes all competing parties with no exception. 

It should be said that working on such frameworks would enhance peace and security opportunities in South of the Arabian Peninsula in a way that ultimately allows the Chinese economic projects and benefits the region’s stability and security.

South24 Center Executive Director
Photo: STC President receives the Chinese Ambassador to Yemen, in Riyadh, June 2020 (official)

1- The Chinese-Arab Relationships- between Past and Present. (
2- The Belt and Road Initiative: New Driving Force for Sino-Yemen Relationship - Mordechai Chaziza, 2021 ( 
3- Khuyut/“Yemen on the Silk Road” (
4- “The Yemeni-Chinese Relationships..58 Years of Giving and Success.. to Partnership and Building” (
5- ”China’s Oil and Economic Interests with the Gulf go Beyond Yemen which is Stuck in the War” (
6- “The Yemeni-Chinese Relationships..58 Years of Giving and Success.. to Partnership and Building” (
7- The UNSC Resolution (2201) adopted on Nov.15th 2015.
8-Chinese warship carrying 83 evacuees from Yemen arrives in Djibouti (
9- “The Pivotal Saudi Role with China to Revive the Silk Road in light of Vision 2030” (
10- What is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? | Chatham House – International Affairs Think Tank 
11- FACT SHEET: President Biden and G7 Leaders Launch Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership | The White House 
12- The Gulf States and China's "Belt and Road" Initiative (
13- China formally opens first overseas military base in Djibouti (Reuters
14- U.S. Navy seizes thousands of Chinese and Russian weapons in Arabian Sea likely bound for Yemen (Daily Mail Online
15- The details of President Al-Zubaidi’s meeting with the Chinese Ambassador in Yemen. (
16- An interview made by the writer with Emad Al-Azraq, the Egyptian journalist in Xinhua and the Head of AL-Tahir Center for Studies and Research. (“South24, March 8th 2022)

South YemenSTCRoad and BeltChinaEconomic ProjectMiddleEastPolitical ForceHadi governmentArab Coalition