The world remains focused on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West, but Yemen’s descent into renewed civil strife has triggered a vigorous military intervention from Saudi Arabia and reshuffled alliances among the region’s Sunni actors. The Houthis’ territorial conquest and Saudi-led airstrikes have wrought broad destruction and external great powers have been forced to recalculate their competing strategic aims.
Asia’s great powers remain on the sidelines for now, leading local actors to seek their patronage and support: Houthi rebel forces have reached out to Russian and Chinese authorities in recent months, while Saudi Arabia has petitioned close ally Pakistan for material support.
This Wikistrat brief, leveraging a recent internal crowdsourced simulation, focuses on why China, Russia and Pakistan have remained reluctant to get involved and how this reflects each state’s self-envisioned role in shaping the Middle East’s future.
The View from Moscow and Beijing
For Russia and China, the Yemeni conflict is nested within two distinct sets of strategic interests. First and foremost, both powers prioritize regional stability so as to avoid costly disruptions in world energy markets. The two regimes also desire to be viewed by the region’s oil powers as legitimate and critical partners – particularly amid any perceived reduction of U.S. military presence and diplomatic focus. As a result, Moscow and Beijing continue to keep their distance from both Yemen’s government and rebel forces.
Indeed, the two powers have tacitly refused to do more than use military assets to evacuate their citizens. Russia has also signaled its openness to a possible UN resolution aimed at deescalating the conflict. These limited actions, which have drawn praise from the international community, help Russia and China avoid inflammatory associations while promoting an image of responsible concern. For China in particular, the use of naval frigates to evacuate citizens was both a rare chance to “show the flag” in an important region of the world and win points for humanitarian relief.
The two countries are also motivated by different trade interests in the Middle East. Chinese demand for Middle Eastern fuel resources has reach staggering heights over the past quarter-century, rising by more than 15 percent annually and surpassing seven million barrels per day earlier this year. Both the stability of the regional oil export industry and the security of maritime passageways are critical to China’s continued economic growth, so Beijing’s support for conflict-termination efforts will focus less on the speed of success and more on its long-term sustainability.
Russia views the Middle East as a major, long-term market for technology exports and services, as evidenced by rising arms sales and newly minted deals with Egypt and others for joint development of nuclear energy production facilities. In terms of its own energy exports, Moscow fears competitive pressures from both Iran, which may soon escape Western sanctions, and Iraq, whose ambition to quadruple its crude oil exports – if successful – will undoubtedly also work to keep global prices lower than average. With Vladimir Putin’s government already suffering an oil-revenue squeeze along with Western financial sanctions, the Kremlin’s policy options tread a thin line between supporting efforts to mitigate Yemen’s conflict and encouraging Iran’s continued economic isolation by capitalizing on Tehran’s rivalry with Riyadh both there and in Syria/Iraq – the latter theater offering the additional opportunity to sabotage Baghdad’s oil export push.
Finally, Russian and Chinese policies toward Yemen reflect unique yet similar domestic concerns. Both regimes have long faced significant demographic issues across their predominately Islamic hinterlands bordering Central Asia. Moscow continues to cope with extreme Muslim militancy in Chechnya and elsewhere along its southern rim, having instituted a number of controversial policies to de-Islamify indigenous populations there. These measures have included Moscow’s age-old practice of exiling identified political extremists, now to Syria and other parts of the Middle East. By contrast, the Chinese government has employed a variety of infamous censorship and police assets to cope with extremist/separatist threats in the country’s far west. One example is Beijing’s aggressive use of the “Great Firewall” cyber security system to identify and control Uighur and other ethnic groups during periods of local political unrest. As such, while both Russia and China exhibit clear concern over Yemen’s recent emergence as a recruitment and training hub for violent Islamist extremist groups, they will continue to eschew any direct actions likely to trigger direct blowback from such organizations.
The view from Islamabad
Compared to Russia and China, Pakistan faces far more immediate strategic issues with the Yemeni conflict. While pledging unequivocal support to Saudi Arabia’s territorial defense, Islamabad has so far only enforced an international arms embargo against the Houthi rebels – this despite Riyadh’s public announcement that Pakistan had joined its intervening coalition forces. Such reticence is rooted in two competing strategic narratives that drive Pakistan’s strategic vision of itself as the region’s critical arbiter of stability.
On the one hand, Islamabad recognizes that long-term stabilization of the Gulf’s Sunni-Shia conflict is in its best interests. As such, the Saudi-led campaign to beat back Houthi forces is desirable, but only so long as it doesn’t spark broader conflict with the group’s alleged patron Iran. On the other hand, Pakistan fears strategic encirclement as a potential outcome of misdirected regional actions. With Iran clearly in regional ascent and close to achieving a diplomatic breakout that preserves its latent nuclear weapons capacity, Islamabad fears antagonizing an increasingly self-confident Tehran, lest Pakistan finds itself surrounded by three countries – Iran, India and Afghanistan – predisposed to limiting its regional influence.
Still, Pakistan will eventually support the Saudis’ military effort, however much after the fact. Doing so maintains an important relationship and is relatively cheap, as the bulk of the cost will be reimbursed by Riyadh. Beyond that, Pakistan is likely to extend a modicum of disaster relief to Yemen’s civilian population as a demonstration of it ambition to play peace broker.
Russia, China and Pakistan could each be a valuable partner for regional powers in brokering stability amidst Yemen’s current crisis. While a solution favorable to the Saudi-led coalition would undoubtedly provide a measure of satisfaction to each, they all prefer an outcome that avoids any escalation of the wider Sunni-Shia conflict.