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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 15, April 4, 2015

China’s High Stakes in Yemen Conflict

Sunday 5 April 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

The level of interest in Beijing on the developments in Yemen is apparently very high. This is only to be expected, arguably, considering that China depends on the Gulf countries for half of all its crude oil imports, apart from having wide-ranging relationships with the countries of the region, which have been steadily expanding and deepening. The ‘Road and Belt’ initiative gives an added strategic dimension insofar as the Silk Route passes through the Red Sea.

Indeed, China will be hard-pressed to take sides in a regional divide. Which makes China a ‘stakeholder’ of sorts, especially when Yemen comes up at the UN Security Council in a matter of time.

The Xinhua reported on March 31, on the current visit of the Pakistani defence delegation to Saudi Arabia, quoting Defence Minister Khawaja Asif to the effect that Pakistan “will provide all resources if there is any threat” to Saudi Arabia, but at the same time, Pakistan also seeks “an end to conflicts in the Muslim world”. The report said PM Nawaz Sharif “would be contacting the leadership of brotherly countries” (which, presumably, includes Iran as well). The report conveys the impression that Pakistan is toeing a cautious line between devotion to its Saudi benefactor and wariness about taking sides in a sectarian strife.

Interestingly, Xinhua carried as many as four commentaries between March 30 and 31 on the conflict in Yemen. Reading between the lines, there is a trace of disapproval of the Saudi military intervention and open skepticism regarding the efficacy of a ground offensive by the Saudi-led alliance.

Most significantly, Iran’s role is viewed with great understanding and analysed in a positive light as possibly even leading to its international standing and, specifically, a strengthening of the US-Iranian engagement. The following excerpts are of interest:

Analysts said Saudi Arabia’s action in support of the Yemeni Government is motivated by the desire to uphold its important status in the Middle East. What’s more, as a major source of economic aid to Yemen, Riyadh could bear almost no tolerance to Sanna’s leaning to Tehran.

One of the reasons why Saudi Arabia and Arab countries spared no effort to hit the Houthis was to stop the rebels’ rapid advance to the border and storm Saudi Arabia, and to blockade the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea, through which thousands of ships pass every year, analysts said.

According to observers, any ground incursion will be difficult and could pose major challenges for the coalition... Geographically, Yemen is rough terrain, with high mountains, caves and traps, which is ultimately difficult for any troops to penetrate.

Iran genuinely hopes for an end to the Saudi-led airstrikes on Houthi positions and reaching a political solution to the Yemeni crisis despite being accused by some neighbours of meddling in the Arab country, analysts have said.

Iran’s objective is to see a coalition govern-ment formed in Yemen with the country’s Shiite population properly represented.

Analysts do not see Iran seeking dominant influence over Yemen, a country that relies heavily on foreign cash, which is not abundant in Tehran because of sanctions. Also, Iran is separated from Yemen by the sea while Saudi Arabia, which has been traditionally influential in Yemen, sits right on its northern border.

In addition, Iran does not want Yemen’s crisis to further play havoc on its efforts to improve ties with neighbours. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has pledged improving ties with neighbouring countries as one of his government’s priorities. Zarif also went on tour visits to the Gulf countries with which high level exchanges had been rare because of strained ties.

The Yemeni crisis is a tricky issue for Iran. However, if well handled, it will prove Iran’s essential role in resolving regional issues to the world, especially to the United States.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.