Houthi attacks from Yemen | Washington and Beijing have a common interest in protecting maritime routes

It is not new that maritime carriers, Western armies and those of the Middle East are concerned about Houthi attacks on maritime transport in key crossing points in the region.

Already, in the summer of 2018, Saudi Arabia had suspended its oil exports across the Red Sea after its tankers suffered attacks from Houthi militias.

Since their takeover of part of Yemen in 2014, the Houthis have represented a real threat to oil and gas transport from this region that is so important in terms of energy that is the Middle East.

Yemen, located on the edge of the strait called Bab el-Mandeb (“the gate of lamentations”), is a strategic passage between Eritrea and Djibouti on one side and Yemen on the other, connecting the Suez Canal to Gulf of Aden to end in the Indian Ocean.

An essential passage

Around 12% of oil transported at sea and 8% of global deliveries of liquefied natural gas pass through it, in a narrow band of around 30 km.

Without access to this strait, ship traffic must take much longer routes, including the Cape of Good Hope, adding several days to transport, which means higher costs. Such an eventuality does not bode well for mitigating inflation that the monetary authorities have been striving to curb for two years.


A ship passes near the coast of Singapore towards the Strait of Malacca, a key passage for the transit of hydrocarbons to China.

Following the actions of Hamas against Israel on October 7, 2023, and the Israeli response, the Houthis, in conflict with Saudi Arabia and close allies of Iran, increased attacks against ships circulating in the strait, targeting, they say, carriers with links to the Jewish state.

These events are very reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s. Considering oil too important for their economy, the Americans sent troops to the region to ensure the free flow of oil in the sea lanes and contain the influence of Moscow. These troops are still there, for more than 50 years.

China comes into play

In 2024, there is a new situation: China. Just like the United States, Beijing has over time built a large naval force, a rival to the United States. Its mandate is also to ensure the free movement of ships, particularly oil tankers, mainly in the Strait of Malacca (between Indonesia and Malaysia), a key passage for the transit of hydrocarbons to China.

So much so that in the current conflict between Houthis and Western countries, China must juggle contradictory interests. Beijing has sided with the Palestinians in the current conflict in the Middle East and the Houthis claim to be acting in support of their cause.

But, at the same time, China’s economic interests are undoubtedly in the direction of the security of maritime routes, which are at the heart of the functioning of a global economy of which it is an active member.

Since 2016, China has had a military base in Djibouti, its first abroad, among other things to protect the Bab el-Manded Strait.

Moreover, largely due to its energy dependence, the country had, at the start of 2023, acted with panache to force a rapprochement between the region’s two major fossil producers, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Its oil imports have more than doubled over the past ten years and China needs the stability of these producing countries with large hydrocarbon deposits.

Despite its more direct rhetoric against Washington for some time, Beijing probably wants, but discreetly, that the Americans and its allies reduce the intensity of the skirmishes triggered by the Houthis, and their potentially deleterious effects for its security of energy supply.

reference: www.lapresse.ca

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