By Aviv Lubell for Global Risk Insights
Over the past decade China has taken a keen interest in Yemen’s political stability and security. Although China has financially invested in Yemen, Beijing’s economic ties to Sana’a are relatively paltry.
Yemen’s true value to China lies in its strategic geopolitical location. Yemen sits abeam the all-important shipping lanes, which traverses the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait. In 2013 nearly 19% of China’s crude oil imports past through this vital artery, signifying the primacy of keeping this strategic lane unimpeded.
For this very reason, since 2009, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been highly active in the Gulf of Aden. China’s mobilization into the Gulf was motivated by two main factors. First, Beijing sought to protect vulnerable Chinese flagged merchant ships navigating the regions dangerous waters. Second and perhaps more importantly, PLAN’s operations have allowed China to remind its western competitors of the extent of its maritime reach.
In order to achieve these goals, Beijing deployed its most modern warships to the region. PLAN has participated in high-profile multinational initiatives and gained much needed real-world operational experience. In fact the evacuation of Chinese nationals from the Port of Aden by PLAN demonstrated to both the world and China the proficiency of its naval forces.
PLAN’s operational limitations
Despite this however, China’s entire navy is still desperately underdeveloped. PLAN’s missions in the Gulf of Aden have proven resource intensive. A sustained presence in the region requires China to utilize its naval resupply assets at 100% capacity, leaving Beijing with a compromised contingency plan at best.
What is required of PLAN is a permanent port of call in the region, in close proximity to its western counterparts. Just across the strait from the Port of Aden, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and even Japan have all established naval ports in Djibouti.
This fact has cemented western maritime dominance in the region for the foreseeable future, meaning that China’s strategic interests will continue to be dependent on western military assets in the Gulf of Aden.
War in Yemen compromised PLAN’s long-term strategy
The conflict in Yemen has thus rendered the use of the Port of Aden for PLAN operations a non-starter. In addition to violence between Houthi militias and forces loyal to the ousted government, the emerging power vacuum has allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand with relative impunity.
While the loss of Aden as a strategically located port of call does not prevent PLAN from expanding its maritime footprint entirely, it does demonstrate the extent to which China is exposed to distant conflicts. Until Yemen stabilizes, Oman’s Port of Salalah 1500km to the west will more than likely represent PLAN’s only viable port in the region.
Access to Salalah however cannot however satisfy or guarantee all of PLAN’s mid and long-term requirements. China must continue to seek out alternative ports if it is to maintain its status as a true maritime power. As such, stabilizing Yemen by engaging Saudi Arabia and Iran should constitute one of China’s most pressing global priorities.