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A man in afatigues has a rocket launcher slung over his shoulder.
A Houthi fighter patrols an area during Yemen’s civil war. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Can China broker peace in Yemen – and further Beijing’s Middle East strategy in the process?

After nearly a decade of grinding conflict, Yemen looks to be inching toward a peace deal.

Talks between the Houthi movement controlling much of the country’s north and Saudi Arabia, the regional power backing an anti-Houthi coalition in the war, are ongoing and being encouraged by international observers.

On May 1, 2023, the U.S. announced that it had sent Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking to the Persian Gulf to “advance ongoing efforts to secure a new agreement and launch a comprehensive peace process.”

But the U.S. has far less of a role in steering negotiations than Washington’s great global rival: China. The recent breakthrough in Yemen has been undergirded by a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, facilitated by Beijing in March 2023.

As an academic who specializes in U.S. and Chinese strategic engagement across eastern Africa and the Middle East, I appreciate that the diplomatic breakthrough brokered by Beijing has implications for the region. It has the potential to reduce rivalries and strengthen stability in Yemen, along with other countries prone to sectarian violence, including Lebanon and Iraq.

But it has also led to speculation over China’s emergence as a major regional player in the Middle East. The development not only challenges the United States’ long-established 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-Iran breakthrough might contribute to a lasting peace in Yemen.

But given the role that the rivalry between the regional powers has had in fueling the fighting, international observers have expressed optimism.

The disintegration of Yemen began with the collapse of its central government in 2011 after the Arab Spring uprising. In 2014, the Houthi group, a Shiite militia backed by Iran, took control of the capital, Sanaa, and forced transitional President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Aden. Hadi’s government struggled to establish itself in Aden and eventually relocated to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he resigned in 2022.

Viewing the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, Saudi Arabia intervened in the Yemeni conflict, backing those loyal to Hadi and bombarding Houthi areas from the air. These Saudi-led attacks contributed to a massive humanitarian crisis. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of at least 377,000 Yemenis, the United Nations projected in 2021, many through indirect causes such as starvation and disease. It has also led to widespread displacement of civilian populations and the breakdown of infrastructure.

The country remains fragmented, with militias controlling separate territories 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 any the numerous militias that currently govern parts of the country. But before 2014, China had a healthy trading and economic relationship with Yemen. According to the World Bank, in 2013 China was Yemen’s second-largest trading partner after Saudi Arabia.

Since 2014, trade between China and Yemen persisted, albeit in a mostly informal manner. Data from the international trade-tracking Observatory of Economic Complexity indicates that China imported US$411 million worth of products, mainly crude oil but also copper, from Yemen in 2021. What remains unclear is which rebel factions have received revenue through the trade.

Meanwhile, China has maintained formal diplomatic and economic ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – each of which back militias involved in Yemen’s war. In fact, China has been intensifying its economic and political connections with all three regional powers.

In recent years, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has visited both the UAE and Saudi Arabia to underscore Beijing’s growing role as a partner in the region. Xi also recently hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a state visit to China.

What’s to gain from peace?

This expanding relationship with key players in the Yemeni conflict puts China in a unique position as a potential peace broker. Yet uniting the three regional powers around a common peace plan has to date proved difficult.

The UAE can influence Yemeni factions it has provided military and financial support to, including the “Security Belt” forces affiliated with the transitional government. However, the Emiratis’ goals may differ from those seeking a unified, independent Yemen. Since the conflict broke out, the UAE has displayed a tendency to undermine Yemen’s territorial integrity through, for example, taking control of some Yemeni islands, such as Socotra.

Similarly, Iran may be reluctant to accept any peace agreement that would diminish its influence in Yemen. Tehran’s relationship with the Houthis has not been as consistently solid as some outside observers suggest, but ties have grown as a result of the conflict. Should hostilities cease, the Houthis’ military dependence on Iran would decrease, diminishing Iran’s leverage.

Saudi Arabia, of the three, stands to gain the most from peace in Yemen. Cessation of conflict would likely halt Houthi attacks on the kingdom, save the Saudis money and resources dedicated to the Yemeni war, and potentially restore an international reputation tarnished by alleged war crimes in the conflict.

To broker peace in Yemen, China would presumably need to concentrate efforts on working with the Saudis.

The Chinese-backed rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could be a first step to this end. Although no direct mention of Yemen is made in the language of the agreement, it does talk of both sides’ support for “the non-interference in internal affairs of states” and “keenness to exert all efforts towards enhancing regional and international peace and security.”

And since that agreement in March, there has been progress toward 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.

The thinking in Beijing

But why is China invested in what happens in an ongoing conflict far from its borders – especially when it is already consumed with perceived strategic and military threats closer to home?

The argument that a cessation of hostilities in Yemen would grant China economic benefits by providing access to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait – a key strategic channel on the Arabian peninsula for commerce and trade, with an estimated 4% of global oil supply passing through it – ignores some critical factors, I believe. Rebuilding a war-shattered Yemen and establishing a stable government may take time – and the investment required to do so might outweigh short-term economic gains.

Moreover, China already has a military base in Djibouti, giving it access to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait even without peace in Yemen.

It could be that China is seeking to be seen as a global peacemaker as part of a strategy that has been referred to as “diplomatic whitewashing” – that is, making friends overseas and playing the “nice guy” to distract from China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority at home and Xi’s increasingly confrontational posture on Taiwan and the South China Sea.

But it also fits a wider geopolitical trend. The counterbalance to China’s growing role in the Middle East is the declining influence of the United States in the region.

Priorities in Washington have shifted to strategic concerns in East Asia and Ukraine, leading to a diplomatic opportunity for China – one Beijing is seemingly keen to exploit.

Meanwhile, U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia have cooled, in part due to the Yemeni war. And Washington has had no formal diplomatic relations with Iran for decades.

As a neutral player, China can engage with Tehran and Riyadh in a way the U.S. simply cannot. That was evident in China’s role in the rapprochement, and it could be the case in resolving Yemen’s war.

For China, it provides opportunities for another diplomatic success from which it could emerge as a reliable partner in a changing geopolitical landscape.

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