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Why are China and Russia silent players in the Red Sea's escalating security situation?

Martin Plaut

Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Department of War Studies

29 January 2024

China's reserved stance on the attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, despite substantial trade interests, prompts questions about its strategy, while Russia may establish a naval presence on Eritrean islands. Dr Martin Plaut explores Russia’s and China’s response to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, assessing the roles of these non-actors and their potential impact.

The US – UK led alliance has hit Houthi targets in Yemen on several occasions, in an attempt to halt the attacks on shipping. The statement issued on 12 January when the first air strikes took place was signed by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Republic of Korea. France was notably absent, but so far only American and British jets have been in action.

However, two other non-regional powers also have a major stake in these events: China and Russia.

The absence of the Chinese is in some ways the most glaring. Almost every container vessel making its way into the Red Sea via the straits of the Bab el Mandeb, is packed with Chinese goods destined for European markets. The EU imported $626 billion worth of Chinese goods in 2022, exporting $230 billion to China, leaving Beijing with a healthy surplus of $395 billion. Sending these goods via the Cape of Good hope will be costly and take time, both of which could lead to customers seeking alternative suppliers.

Despite having a clear stake in the outcome of these events, China has had little to say about it. As one commentary put it: “Beijing prefers to remain silent, avoid a clear declarative stand, and refrain from taking concrete actions.”

Yet China has military assets in the region. Since 2017 the Chinese have an important base in Djibouti – its first overseas military base. It has been developed into a major facility, capable of servicing the expanding Chinese navy. Yet there has been no sign of the Chinese navy being despatched to the region, or being willing to safeguard Beijing’s trade.

The other non-actor is Russia. This is more understandable, since its nearest naval base is the Syrian port of Tartus. But in the past week reports have begun circulating that President Putin has given the go-ahead for the construction of a naval base on Eritrean islands in the Red Sea. These are hard to confirm, but the Dahlak islands, lying between Eritrea and the coast of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, have long been suggested for this role.

Eritrea under President Isaias Afwerki has had warm relations with the Russians for many years, but it was Eritrea’s support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the UN that probably sealed the deal. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the UN resolution condemning Russia’s actions.

Following this President Afwerki made two trips to Moscow, spending time in talks with President Putin – the second during the Russia-Africa Summit of July 2023.

Both men share a loathing of the United States and what they term its “hegemonic strategy.” Rather, Russia wishes to promote a “multipolar” world, in which it has greater control via a series of alliances.

“There’s a sort of synergy around Russia’s desire to see a dismantling of the post–World War II order that no longer really privileges them beyond their Security Council veto, and African desires to see reform of multilateral institutions which were created before most African states even existed,” said Michelle Gavin, of the Centre for Foreign Relations.

The suggestion that Russia might build a base in Eritrea dates back at least as far as 2018, when Sergei Lavrov, the Kremlin’s long-standing Foreign Minister is reported to have announced the plan. The suggestion that this was on the cards was confirmed in the British Parliament by Lord Goldsmith on 7 April 2022, when he said in a reply to a question about a possible base in Eritrea that: “Russia has long sought to pursue interests on the Red Sea. We continually monitor developments in the region.”

On a visit to Eritrea in January 2023 Lavrov elaborated on Russia’s intentions. He is quoted as saying that “Both sides will conduct a joint study to establish the logistical and transit opportunities presented by the Red Sea port of Massawa and its airport, TASS said. “I would like to mention the possibility of using the logistical potential of the Massawa port and the city’s airport. The airport of Massawa looks interesting from the point of view of its transit possibilities,” Lavrov said.

These initiatives come after Russian plans to build a base in Sudan came to nothing. “They’re very hesitant to give them access to this port. They continue to try and delay and do delay tactics,” said a U.S. intelligence official. “We see it as unlikely that the Port Sudan deal is going to be done anytime in the near future and that Russia is potentially looking to seek other options if Port Sudan doesn’t work out.”

If the Russian scheme to construct a naval base on the Dahlak does go ahead it would be the fulfilment of these long held ambitions, and match other foreign navies that have a presence in the region, including the US, Chinese and French bases in Djibouti. It would give President Putin the option of intervening in this critical waterway.

In this story

Martin Plaut

Martin Plaut

Visiting Senior Research Fellow

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