Analyzing the Impact of Red Sea Militarization: Is It a Response to Chinese Regional Influence?

The ongoing developments in the Red Sea over the past weeks, against the backdrop of continued Houthi attacks on ships since November 2023, and the subsequent counterattacks by the United States and Britain on Houthi targets in Yemen since January 12, 2024, raise many questions about the roles of international powers and their competition in this strategic region.

Among these questions is whether the United States has capitalized on Houthi attacks on commercial and military ships in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Arabian Sea since the first attack on commercial ships bound for and from Israel on November 19, 2023. If so, what are Washington’s objectives in what could be termed “new militarization”? Are these goals solely related to sending a deterrence message to Iran’s allies in the region, or do they involve repositioning the US in the region and countering the so-called “Chinese acceptability,” which has been growing since Beijing brokered the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran on March 10, 2023? To what extent do the formation of the “Guardian of Prosperity” alliance on December 19 and the establishment of the European Union’s Force Aspidis on February 19 aim to control Chinese trade with Europe under Western dominance? What are Beijing’s options for responding to the US move?

US Objectives:

The United States may have used Houthi attacks on maritime navigation in the Red Sea to pursue several objectives unrelated to the freedom of navigation, including:

  1. Gaining control of the maritime domain of the “Combined Maritime Force,” the largest naval force on Earth, covering 3.2 million nautical miles of international waters, established by the United States in 2002 under the Fifth Naval Fleet’s umbrella, based in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The force, which includes 39 countries and covers an area from the west coast of India to the Red Sea, currently operates under Gen. Brad Cooper, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command and the Fifth Fleet, known as NAVCENT. The Guardian of Prosperity and Aspidis forces, with their new military assets, will bolster the American and Western presence in the region, adding to the assets of the “Combined Joint Task Force 150” (CTF 150), operating in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and near the east coast of Africa, and the Combined Task Forces 151 and 152, with significant contributions to maritime security.
  2. Enhancing the military capabilities of the Combined Task Force “153,” formed in April 2022 with 39 countries to maintain maritime security in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab, but initially equipped only with light military equipment for counter-piracy or smuggling efforts. The US saw the Houthi attacks as an opportunity to significantly strengthen this force with advanced military ships and defense systems, thereby enhancing deterrence in the region.
  3. Limiting the operational space of the Chinese naval base in Djibouti by maintaining a strong US and Western naval presence in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab Strait, Arabian Sea, and surrounding international waters, thereby constraining China’s military capabilities in the region.
  4. Blocking Chinese and Russian naval maneuvers in the region by establishing a significant Western military presence, thus forming a barrier against the increasing joint exercises among China, Russia, and Iran.
  5. Dominating Chinese merchandise trade routes: By exerting military control over the Red Sea, the US aims to negatively affect China across four main fronts, considering complete dominance over these sea lanes a strategic advantage over both Moscow and Beijing, especially after assessments showed China benefiting from Russian energy supplies despite Western sanctions.

Beijing’s options:

Despite the military balance in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea favoring the United States and its Western allies, China has a range of options, including:

  1. Military buildup by enhancing its presence at the Djibouti base and deploying the “Southern 46th Fleet” to the region, which includes advanced military vessels and about 750 personnel, demonstrating a commitment to maintaining a significant military presence near US assets.
  2. Engaging in soft diplomacy by advocating for freedom of navigation without condemning the Houthis, thereby maintaining maneuverability with Iran and the Houthis. This approach has led to the Houthis not attacking ships identified as Chinese, showcasing the effectiveness of Chinese diplomatic efforts in safeguarding its interests without directly opposing US and British actions against the Houthis.

In conclusion, the “militarization” of the Red Sea appears to be a deliberate strategy by the United States, possibly viewed as an opportunity to preclude an increased Chinese military presence in the region.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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