February 2024

Real world leadership

The Houthi terror attacks on international trade have shown up China’s inexperience as a world leader which, in turn, will weaken its attempts to win loyalty from the Global South.

Since trigger-happy tribesmen in Yemen threatened shipping three months ago, China has emerged bereft of ideas and of action on how to resolve the crisis.

Those governments Beijing is lobbying to help overturn the American-led world order might wisely whisper that it is not yet capable of tackling complex global issues. Best to watch and learn for the next generation or so before making a decisive move.

Most in the developing world do not want war or high-minded ideology.  They are looking to improve living standards, which is achieved by commerce and wealth-creation.

More than 80 per cent of international freight travels by sea. Therefore, attacks on seaborne trade, anywhere in the world, threaten that ambition.

As the world’s biggest trading country, with a stunning record of pulling millions out of poverty, China relies on imported oil and gas, together with smooth supply chains for its very existence.Its motive for building military bases on South China Sea islands and securing ports and havens through the Indo-Pacific is precisely to protect this lifeblood flow of trade.

Yet, far from using its experienced and powerful voice to protect trade and fellow developing countries, it has remained largely silent, on the sidelines waiting for others to take the lead.

Egypt and Jordan, particularly, have suffered economic blows.

Operators are avoiding the Red Sea and Suez Canal to send their vessels around Africa adding more than 3,000 miles to journeys and effecting costs, delivery times and schedules. Shipping insurance rates have rocketed. 

The Houthis are a Yemen militant group who claim they are deploying this style of violence in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

For much of the Global South, however, the Israel-Palestine conflict is an unnecessary one.  So many other societies have worked through historical grievances, changed borders and cultural differences without endless fighting.

The Houthis are entwined with the brutal tapestry of the Middle East. They have been in conflict with the Yemen government for more than ten years in a civil war that has become a regional proxy of Sunni-Shia tension.

Shia Iran supports the Houthis. Sunni Saudi Arabia backs the Yemen government. From there, threads move into wider geopolitics.

The United States sides with Saudi Arabia. The anti-American Sino-Russian partnership allies itself with Iran, which holds sway over a network of aggressive Islamic groups such as the Houthis, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

By striking ocean-going freighters, the Houthis and Iran are attempting to expand the Israel-Gaza war into a regional conflict, believing that this will garner them support and weaken America.

But this is where Islamic Middle Eastern values clash with Chinese Asian Confucian ones.

The survival of regional militant groups or the regime in Iran does not rely on good governance and improving the well-being of those they control. The Chinese Communist Party, however, has a specific pact with its people to materially improve their lives.

China, therefore, cannot afford to support such blatant disruption of global trade, particularly by an Islamic terror group of the style it claims to be suppressing with re-education camps in its Muslim province of Xinjiang.

Yet, faced with such a conundrum, it shows no initiative and rolls out only bland statements. ‘All sides need to play a constructive and responsible role in safeguarding the security of shipping lanes in the Red Sea,’ said a foreign ministry spokesperson.

Meanwhile, America did take a lead by pushing through a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that the Houthis immediately stop their attacks.

Instead of blocking with their right of veto, Russia and China abstained, proving that the UN Security Council is not totally paralysed, and paving the way for the US-led airstrikes that followed.

Those missions did not immediately stop the Houthi attacks. This is, after all, Middle East extremism.

But the strikes did send a message to governments around the world that, when trade needs protecting and the global economy is being held to ransom, America – and not China – remains the country to call.