China abstains on UNSC resolution over Red Sea crisis for fear of fueling tension

ISMAILIA, EGYPT - JANUARY 10: A ship transits the Suez Canal towards the Red Sea on January 10, 2024 in Ismailia, Egypt. In the wake of Israel's war on Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Houthi rebels in Yemen pledged disruption on all ships destined for Israel through the Red Sea's Suez Canal. The disruption on world trade is evident in the number of companies using this container ship route - a 90 per cent decline compared to figures one year ago. (Photo by Sayed Hassan/Getty Images)

China, along with Algeria, Mozambique and Russia, abstained on a US-backed UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution demanding Houthi militia stop attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, which was adopted on Wednesday with 11 voting for and zero against.

Zhang Jun, China's permanent representative to the UN, explained China's abstention as certain revisions proposed by UNSC members were not incorporated into the text.

Defeated amendments included adding "the text's provisions should not be seen to create precedent or new norms of international law," changes to language regarding the defense of vessels and contents relating to the conflict in the Gaza Strip, according to a press release by the UN.

The text remains ambiguous on several key issues and Zhang expressed concern that the resolution might not achieve its intended effect, or might even lead to negative consequences and further escalate regional tensions.

Stating that his delegation therefore had to abstain, Zhang called on the Houthi militia to abide by the resolution and on relevant parties to play a constructive role to ease tensions in the Red Sea.

Liu Zhongmin, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, told the Globala Times on Thursday that a major flaw of the resolution lay in the fact that it treated the Red Sea crisis as a separate issue while it was obviously a spillover of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Targeting Houthi militia without substantial efforts to de-escalate the Gaza war is like putting the cart before the horse, he said.

The US formed a so-called international coalition in December 2023 to deal with Houthi attacks and the fighting has been escalating. On Tuesday, US Central Command said the US and British navies downed 21 missiles and drones launched by Houthi forces, according to media reports.

In response to the UN resolution, the head of Yemen's Houthi supreme revolutionary committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, said on Thursday that what armed forces in Yemen were doing comes within the framework of legitimate defense, and that any action they confront will be met with a reaction.

Liu raised concerns that the US and its coalition may use the resolution to justify expanded strikes on Houthi group. The US may not intend to get deeply involved in the Red Sea crisis as it is not "cost-efficient," but its approach is aggravating tensions.

The prolonged Gaza war has led to not only the Red Sea crisis but also an Israel-Lebanon conflict at the borders, among other regional sporadic conflicts.

Liu said US pressure on Houthi group and diplomatic posturing to media in the Gaza war without substantial efforts will only cause the intertwined conflicts in the region to last longer and become more complicated.

If the situation continues, the entire Middle East will ultimately face a dire security prospect and likely spikes in extremism and terrorism, Liu warned.

Given these longer-term prospects and the immediate impact on energy prices and global trade, it is ridiculous to claim China is benefiting from Middle East instability when it is the US that is trying to reaffirm its hegemony in the region, analysts said.

China has had a consistent stance that related parties should act with restraint and capable powers should play constructive roles rather than fan the flames, they said.

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