China’s ambassador to Tehran told Iranian officials on Sunday that Beijing is seeking a role in ending the Yemen war, potentially using its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to take action to settle the dispute.
Ambassador Pang Sen’s remarks appeared in the Iranian state outlet Tasnim News and do not clarify whether China would interfere in the war on the part of the legitimate government of Yemen, currently in exile in southern Aden, or the Shiite Houthi rebels, which have overrun the capital Sana’a with Iranian help.
China has interfered in the war in the past on the part of the legitimate government and its closest state ally, Saudi Arabia, though it has attempted to bolster ties with Iran independent of the situation in Yemen.
Ambassador Pang spoke to senior adviser to the Iranian parliament speaker for international affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian on Sunday, according to Tasnim News, and expressed the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to find “a way to settle the conflicts in Yemen with the help of UN Security Council members, hoping that Yemeni people would receive foodstuff and medical aid.”
Abdollahian, on his part, told the Chinese envoy that Iran hopes to see China “find an appropriate way to end the war on Yemen,” perhaps through the Security Council.
Tasnim does not offer any other details on their conversation, focusing on the humanitarian situation in the country. Yemen is currently enduring a famine threatening 12 million people, estimated to have killed 85,000 children already. Higher estimates suggest that as many as 18 million people could die of starvation in the country by the end of 2018. Yemen was already the Gulf region’s poorest nation before the civil war that erupted in 2015. The situation for civilians has deteriorated significantly since global monitors estimated that 80 percent of the country relied on international humanitarian aid to survive that year. The Houthis and their supporters argue that a major contributing factor in the situation has been the pro-government coalition’s blockade of key port cities like Hodeidah, preventing shipments of food from entering the country. The blockade’s wartime intent is to dry up weapons supplies to the Houthis in Sana’a.
The Chinese government initially intervened in the Yemen war on behalf of the Saudi coalition. In 2016, Beijing issued a joint statement with Riyadh demanding that the Houthis step down and allow President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to resume governing the country, referring to his as the “legitimate regime of Yemen.” A year later, China’s state media proclaimed that Beijing had begun shipping humanitarian aid to the country.
More recently, experts noted this month that China appears to have never ceased its investment in the Saudi side of the Yemen civil war.
“China has made some more substantial inroads into the Saudi arms market, in particular selling armed drones,” Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told CNN last week. “The details are shady and we may very well have underestimated China’s role as an arms exporter to Saudi Arabia.”
China has a clear vested interest in the Gulf region: it is a pivotal part of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure plan aiming to ensure that China controls the world’s most lucrative and significant ports, roads, and railways. China has spent $23 billion on expanding the BRI into the Middle East alone. To protect its investments, China opened its first permanent overseas military base last year in Djibouti, across the mouth of the Red Sea from Yemen. Chinese state media explicitly argued that one of the key functions of the base would be to make investors “secure and confident” in OBOR.
Despite continuing support to Saudi Arabia, the Tasnim report on Sunday suggests that China is open to supporting both sides of the war, so long as it benefits from the alliances. Chinese officials appear interested in taking advantage of the growing financial crisis in Iran following the implementation of new sanctions on the regime by the United States on November 4. Iranian state media announced this week that China would play a key role in helping the country avoid the sanctions, having the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) replace a major French buyer in importing Iranian oil. European Union states loudly opposed the new U.S. sanctions but have ultimately begun scaling back their purchases of Iranian oil, leaving a void that countries like China can fill.