South24 Center

Who Can End the Yemen Conflict: China or the US?


Thu, 24-08-2023 01:22 PM, Aden

Yemenis will keep a watchful eye on the possible impact of geopolitical changes in the region on the Yemen file and whether the credit will be attributed to Washington or Beijing for moving the conflict-wracked country to safety. 

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

In his first foreign policy speech (Feb 4, 2021), US President Joe Biden called for ending the war in Yemen and halting the US arms sales to the Saudi-led Arab Coalition due to the humanitarian and the strategic crises caused by the war. More than two years after the Biden Administration ascended to power, the US has failed to fulfil its pledges. Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, says: “Two years after Biden took over, China is probably the one that fulfilled this pledge.” The intense diplomatic activities in the Middle East during the first half of 2023 have shifted many strategic balances in the region. The most prominent is Beijing’s efforts regarding the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement that opened a new chapter in the relations between the two biggest influential forces in the region following decades of tension.

In June, Iran reopened its embassy in the Saudi capital city of Riyadh after years of diplomatic rift between the two states. The Saudi embassy in Tehran reopened on August 6. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan had announced plans to reopen the embassy during his visit to Tehran in mid-June, which was the first such visit in seven years. The benefits of the rapprochement will percolate to the entire region, according to Iranian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ali Reza Enayati. He stressed that the resumption of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia will have “a big impact on regional peace, stability and independence with the promotion of a culture of dialogue in the region”. 

China’s success in achieving the diplomatic breakthrough will undoubtedly enable Beijing to deepen its influence with the Middle Eastern states, especially as the US has sought to reduce its own involvement there. Countries in the region have sought to cooperate with China in the fields of technology, security and infrastructure. Washington’s fading role in the region has helped in accelerating the pace of this development. The US’ National Security Strategy in October 2022 termed China as constituting “the most consequential geopolitical challenge” for America. It appears that such statements by the Biden Administration have led many US allies in the Middle East to believe that Washington’s attention has shifted to another region. This factor, combined with Washington abandoning Afghanistan in August 2021 after 20 years, has led the Middle Eastern nations to search for other strategic, economic and security alternatives. 

In contrast, China has emerged as a significant player in the Middle East, as can be seen in the Saudi-Iran agreement brokered in Beijing. With China successfully playing the role of mediator in the region, it may hopefully seek to play a mediation role in the peace process in Yemen too. The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could be the first step towards achieving this goal. Though there is no direct mention of Yemen in the transcript of the agreement, the Chinese move has the potential to bring peace, and is based on Beijing’s strategic economic interests in the Middle East.

With China successfully playing the role of mediator in the region, it may hopefully seek to play a mediation role in the peace process in Yemen too.

The Chinese moves in Yemen

While China’s moves regarding Yemen are still unclear, the following factors are noteworthy: 

1- Yemen’s important location: The strategic location of Yemen could prove to be the most attractive and decisive factor for China, especially in view of the access to the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea. A large portion of China’s trade and oil exports from the Middle East and Africa pass through these waterways in addition to the Strait of Hormuz. Therefore, in the backdrop of its strategic thinking, Beijing may think in terms of securing access to the ports in South and North Yemen which will give a fillip to its ’Belt and Road‘ initiative. This would also guarantee China easy access to the global trade routes.

2- Military presence: In 2017, China built its first military base outside its borders in Djibouti. According to Beijing, the base would help in its anti-piracy and aid missions along the Yemeni and Somali coasts. Despite concerns by major countries about the Chinese military presence in Djibouti and its likely consequences on the global geostrategic map, China has repeatedly stressed that it is just a logistics base. It appears that China is keen on spreading its economic, security and commercial influence near the Red Sea's southern side in order to secure the routes of its energy supplies and trade transportation. Besides, the base will also allow China to confront any threats to its economic plans, whether from terrorism or piracy or the Houthis. China’s move to set up a military base in the UAE has invited flak from the US, which has declared that it .will never allow this to happen.

3- Agreements and grants: Yemen has long encouraged Chinese investments. During an official visit to Beijing in 2013 by the then Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, both sides signed a series of agreements on investments and future cooperation. These included an agreement to expand and deepen the container terminal in the port of Aden at a total cost of $507 million as well as agreements in the fields of planning, international cooperation and education. However, many of the current Chinese projects have been suspended, including in oil and infrastructure. Additionally, the projects signed in 2013 have not been implemented due to the ongoing conflict in Yemen for over eight years. In July 2017, Beijing delivered a $22.5 million grant in the form of relief assistance to the Yemeni government as well as additional funds for the UN World Food Program and the World Health Organization to help fight the cholera epidemic. In 2009, the Chinese government gave a $753,000 grant to help Yemeni people displaced by the fighting between the army and the Houthis. Significantly, Chinese Ambassador to Yemen Tian Qi has stated on September 11, 2016, that "China is ready to actively engage in the process of the future economic reconstruction in Yemen". Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative could be an incentive for this.

4- The KSA's exit from the war: China’s endeavor to normalize the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is also prompted by the reasoning that Riyadh's withdrawal from the Yemen war would provide a more stable environment in the region. This would further reassure China to carry on with its strategic economic activities, especially in view of the fact that it purchases half of its raw oil supplies from Arab states, with Saudi Arabia at the top. Riyadh will expectedly remain the main source for Chinese oil supplies following Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Riyadh in December last year. China, the second biggest economy in the world, is also set to receive $1-2 trillion investments from the biggest sovereign funds in the Middle East by 2030.

5- Continuous meetings: The repeated meetings by Chinese officials with the legitimate authorities in Yemen have stirred much speculation about Beijing’s growing interest, especially after the China-Arab (Gulf) summits in December last year. This is because the meetings focused on arriving at a comprehensive political settlement between the warring parties in Yemen. The latest of these meetings was held on July 31, 2023, between the Chinese Chargé d'affaires in Yemen Shao Zheng and Chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council Rashad Al-Alimi. They discussed the regional and international efforts to revive the political process as well as the need for some nudging by China to push forward the peace process in Yemen. This was preceded by multiple one-on-one meetings with the PLC's vice president.

6- Resumption of the Chinese embassy activities: Beijing has sought to intensify its diplomatic activities in Yemen through its attempts to reopen the Chinese embassy. In December last year, a Chinese diplomatic delegation visited the capital city of Aden to pave the way for the resumption of the Chinese embassy's work. The delegation headed to the Chinese Consulate’s headquarters in ’Sefarat‘ in Khormaksar District. During his visit, Shao Zheng announced that the headquarters of the former Chinese Embassy in Aden is ready. He thanked the Yemeni leaders for their efforts to maintain the building that was temporarily closed in June 2015.

7- A hidden mediator: Sources told ’South24 Center‘ about China’s relentless mediation efforts related to the bilateral talks between the Saudis and the Houthis in the first half of this year. Although Oman emerged in the forefront as a regional mediator, Beijing played the role of the hidden international mediator in these understandings. China wants to maintain its relations with the different parties of the Yemen conflict, including the Houthis. Beijing previously played such a role with the Taliban in Afghanistan when it organized peace talks in 2019 to achieve reconciliation among the warring parties and sign an agreement according to which the US forces and other foreign troops would withdraw from Afghanistan in return for security guarantees from the Taliban. Beijing’s engagement with the Taliban has been part of the strategic conflict with Washington with an aim to fill the American vacuum in Central Asia. It is apparently the same role that China has played in the Middle East by presenting itself as an alternative to the United States.

Recently, the Houthis sought to exploit the Chinese stance towards the Yemeni parties by declaring that they "signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Chinese company Anton Oil to make oil exploration investments in Yemen". This came against the will of the Yemeni legitimate authorities. However, the Acting Chinese Ambassador quickly denied this saying that Beijing has nothing to do with the rumors about signing a MoU. Immediately, the Chinese company announced that its branch in Dubai had "signed an illegal memorandum of understanding due to the lack of adequate understanding of relevant information". It officially revoked the MoU and apologized to the parties involved. However, observers still doubt China’s real objective behind its relationship with the Houthis. It is important for Beijing to ensure that there are no security threats in the Red Sea, especially as the Houthis control a coastal strip that extends for more than 200 km (from Al-Khawkhsh to Midi before the Saudi borders). It is apparent that China wants to keep a balanced approach between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially as the latter supports the Houthis.

8- The relationship with the Southerners: In view of the regular meetings between the Chinese and the leaders of the legitimate government, it is apparent that Beijing wants to build strong ties with Yemen. The repeated meetings between its ambassador and PLC's Vice President and STC President Aidrous Al-Zubaidi, even before he joined the PLC, shows that China is well aware of the importance of rearranging its priorities with the Southerners who are influential on the ground politically and militarily and are able to deal with the status quo in a realistic and smart way. Some countries, including regional states, rarely act in such a way. The control wielded by the Southern military forces over the coasts in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the entrance to the Bab al-Mandab Strait is important in securing the interests of South Yemen first and the interests of major countries whose international trade passes through these waterways. This would protect them from any possible threats by terrorist groups, piracy or the Houthis. Furthermore, China and Russia previously had strong relations with South Yemen before the latter joined a unity agreement with North Yemen in 1990. This allowed Beijing to establish contact with the Southern parties and maintain ties that would guarantee its interests in the region. 

“China is well aware of the importance of rearranging its priorities with Southerners who are influential on the ground, politically and militarily, and who are able to deal with the status quo in a realistic and smart way".

Urgent US priorities 

On July 27, 2023, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Yemen was among the topics discussed by the two besides their bilateral and regional relationships. The Yemen file will apparently remain in the state of "no peace and no war" thanks to the continuous US praise of the de-facto truce and its waning interest over the past six months. There appears no imminent solution to end the crisis in Yemen. This also emerged during a speech by the US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking who seemed pessimistic while talking about the negotiations two months ago. He said: “I don’t expect a durable resolution – and we should not – to the nearly eight-year conflict in Yemen. A political process will take time and likely face numerous setbacks, but I continue to be optimistic that we have a real opportunity ahead of us for peace."

By referring to “numerous setbacks”, Lenderking was being far-sighted in describing the expected situation, which also puts the question before the United States -- about whether it will make real efforts to implement its pledge to get Yemen out of the crisis. Washington has always stressed the importance of the UN role regarding the peace efforts in Yemen and the diplomatic efforts required to move towards a permanent solution to the conflict. More importantly, it appears that Washington has certain top priorities in region, and the extent to which it achieves these goals can impact many nations in the region, including Yemen. The US is keen to negotiate more decisive diplomatic deals in the Middle East, foremost of which is the Israeli-Saudi normalization deal. The latter is the opposite of the Chinese one to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it is probably the most important in the region. American news site ’Axios (on July 31, 2023)‘ said: "Mossad director David Barnea secretly visited Washington nearly two weeks ago for talks with senior White House and CIA officials about the Biden administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia that would include normalization between the kingdom and Israel." 

According to unconfirmed leaks, the deal includes three Saudi conditions, foremost of which is a security agreement that would oblige the US to defend the kingdom against any security and military attacks. Saudi Arabia is also demanding that the US assist the kingdom in developing a civilian nuclear program. Additionally, Riyadh has asked that Israel cease its settlement activities and not annex Palestinian territories on the West Bank. In return, the US reportedly wants Saudi Arabia to majorly restrict its growing ties with China.

Following the understanding, more than 3,000 US sailors and marines of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) arrived in the Middle East on August 6. The US 5th Fleet’s area of operations encompasses approximately 2.5 million square miles of water space and includes the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea, parts of the Indian Ocean and three critical choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal and Strait of Bab al-Mandab. It remains unknown if the recent deployment of forces in the Red Sea is part of the undeclared security and military guarantees for Saudi Arabia to complete the expected normalization deal in the region or part of a wider deployment by the US troops in light of Iran's escalated attempts over the past months to seize commercial carriers in the Gulf waterways.

Observers expect that the Israeli-Saudi normalization deal would change the Middle East geopolitical scene. This is despite the fact that Israel’s current extremist right-wing government could place obstacles in the path of the deal. The deal also goes against the previous Saudi demand of adhering to the Arab initiative following the Arab Summit held in Beirut in 2002. The initiative proposes the "two-state solution" based on the 1967 borders. The Biden Administration is also likely to disregard its own opinion regarding the human rights record of the Saudi Crown Prince in order not to damage the scope of its promoted deal on which the US’ hopes are pinned.

China has been probably better than the US in the manner of its dealings with both Tehran and Riyadh. This actually began with the Chinese promoted rapprochement between the two parties. China will probably seek to use the same diplomatic path to solve the Yemeni conflict and arrive at a comprehensive peace. China appears to be the most reliable international partner for regional parties that have directly intervened in the Yemen war. This may also include local Yemeni parties, especially if China plays a direct mediation role.

Accordingly, Yemenis will keep watching the possible impact of geopolitical changes in the region on the Yemen file and whether the credit will be attributed to Washington or Beijing for moving Yemen to safety.

Farida Ahmed 

Executive Director of South24 Center for News and Studies

ChinaSaudi ArabiaSouth YemenIranHouthisRoad and BeltSilk RoadMiddle EastUnited States