Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference 2024
MERICS Europe China 360°
12 Minuten Lesedauer

China and the Red Sea crisis + EU anti-forced labor instrument

In this issue of the MERICS Europe China 360° our experts cover the following topic:

  • Red Sea crisis forces Europe to rethink engaging China – once again
  • There is life in the contemplated EU anti-forced labor instrument 

Red Sea crisis forces Europe to rethink engaging China – once again

By Helena Legarda

China’s role in international conflicts is in the spotlight as the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears. With the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House stoking fears of US isolationism, Beijing’s stance towards the war in Ukraine and the conflicts in the Middle East were live issues at this year’s Munich Security Conference – even if Europe continued to struggle to find a way to engage with China about it.

China may not have been the main focus, but the meeting of the world’s security-policy elite made one thing clear: Beijing’s continued support for Russia and its unwillingness to take a firm stance on the conflict in Gaza and the shipping crisis in the Red Sea are still key friction points in relations with the EU, the UK, the US, Canada and other countries that want Beijing to engage more proactively and responsibly. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi tried to assuage delegates in Munich by emphasizing he represented “a responsible major country” that would “keep its major principles and policies consistent and stable and serve as a staunch force for stability in a turbulent world.” But he did not find a very receptive audience at the Bayerischer Hof hotel. 

Beijing’s inaction in the Red Sea crisis proved to be a sticking point in some of Wang’s bilateral meetings over the weekend. A number of US officials as well as the foreign ministers of Canada and the UK publicly called on Beijing to use its influence over Iran to rein in the Houthi militia in Yemen and stabilize the situation in the Red Sea. 

Europe struggles to react

But European officials who met with Wang in Munich seem to have been less direct, if they raised the issue at all. This is a glaring omission given that three months of attacks on Red Sea shipping by the Iran-backed Houthis are taking their toll on Europe. Accounting for more than 40 percent of Europe’s trade with Asia and the Middle East, the disruption of the Red Sea trade route has raised shipping and insurance prices and delayed imports.

The Red Sea attacks, ostensibly launched to show Houthi solidarity with the Palestinians caught in the Gaza conflict, drew a swift response from Washington. It launched a naval operation to defend shipping in the area and conducted air strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen together with the UK. But Europe’s response has been slower to materialize.

It was only on February 19 that the EU launched its own maritime operation to help stabilize the region. The mission, called EUNAVFOR ASPIDES, is an important step for the EU in signaling the importance it assigns to the Red Sea maritime corridor. But with a purely defensive mandate, it is unlikely to have any significant impact. The EU has to continue pursuing political solutions to the crisis –and so must necessarily involve China.

EU response must consider China

Due to its close relationship with Tehran, China is considered to have enough leverage over Iran to pressure it to rein in the Houthis. Beijing should have an interest in doing so, as Red Sea disruptions have hit China’s trade as well. So far, however, it has been unable or unwilling to act. China has kept a counter-piracy taskforce of the People’s Liberation Army Navy posted out of the fray in the Gulf of Aden. Despite reports that Chinese officials pressed Iran to urge the Houthis to show restraint, the attacks continue unabated. 

The Red Sea crisis has once more put Europe in the position of having to navigate China’s geopolitical positioning in an attempt to enlist its support. Its lack of progress in shifting China from its pro-Russian “neutrality” with regard to the war in Ukraine shows how difficult this may prove. But it is important that Europe continues to try finding ways to engage with China through productive conversations about these issues.