Beijing seeks normalcy in war-affected Yemen to ensure its flagship Belt and Road Initiative has safe access to the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.
In late November, China’s envoy to the UN, Zhang Jun, urged the international community to offer “a tailored assistance” to Yemen, saying Beijing was ready to work for its post-war reconstruction.
While participating in the UN Security Council meeting, Jun said China intended to boost the confidence of Yemenis and called on all conflicting parties to “seize the opportunity” to end war and find a political solution.
Many experts argue that Beijing's ambitious Belt and Road Initiate (BRI) will gain advantage if Yemen achieves stability.
"Much of China’s trade with Europe passes through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, while Chinese imports of Middle Eastern and African oil transit through Bab el Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz," I-wei Jennifer Chang, Research Fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC told TRT World.
Chang said although Yemen is "not of direct importance to China’s overall foreign policy goals", the country still occupies a geostrategic position straddling the international shipping lanes.
"The Chinese would like to see peace and stability restored in Yemen so that Chinese companies could resume pre-2011 investments and trade and potentially play major roles in Yemen’s post-war reconstruction. The Chinese would also like Yemen to be stable in order to make Yemen play a more economically active role in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative," Chang added.
China has historically had good relations with Yemen. In 1956, both countries created formal diplomatic relations which makes Yemen the first Arabian Peninsula country to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the legitimate representative of the country.
China was one of the first countries carrying out investment and development projects in Yemen before the unification. Beijing undertook a 266-kilometre road construction project between Sanaa and Hodeidah in the 1950s.
In 2012, the China National Corporation for Overseas Economic Cooperation (CCOEC) signed a deal to build three natural gas-fired power plants in the country.
The two countries agreed in 2013 to expand two container ports in the southern cities of Aden and Mokha at a total cost of $508 million.
China has also played an active role in oil production of Yemen. Despite the Arabian Peninsula country having fewer petroleum resources than its neighbours, Chinese state-owned oil company Sinopec Corp operated in Yemen’s exploration and production sector, producing 20,000 barrels per day which was eight percent of Yemen’s total production. But as civil war gripped Yemen, Sinopec Corp left the country.
"After 2011, we’ve seen China come to develop some contacts with the Houthis, such as China’s former ambassador to Yemen Tian Qi playing a key role in maintaining lines of communication with the Houthis," Chang said.
"China’s official position is that it supports the Hadi government as the legitimate government of Yemen and has decidedly stronger relations with the Hadi government than the opposition groups."
China has maintained friendly relations with the Saudi Kingdom, which backs the Hadi-led government and supports its fights against the Houthi rebels.
Since the kingdom is a major oil supplier for the Belt and Road Initiative, China has maintained soft diplomacy on Saudi's war efforts in Yemen.
According to the United States Institute of Peace, China has calculated: "Yemen was a higher priority for the Saudis than the Iranians, and that the nuclear deal was more significant to Tehran.”
Yemen-based political analyst Yaseen Tamimi told TRT World that Chinese diplomats have had "routine meetings" with all parties in the war-torn country since China's long-term ambition is to benefit from the geographical location of Yemen.
"China wants to use these ports to connect with the global trade route known as the Silk Road, along with ports that have already become stations in this road, such as the Pakistani port of Gwadar and another port in Djibouti," Tamimi said.
China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, giving it access to the key maritime choke point, Bab el Mandeb.
"The importance of the port of Aden lies precisely in that it enjoys an ideal natural location and shortens the distance of hundreds of miles needed by the shipping lines when you have to use major transit ports in the region such as the UAE port of Jebel Ali."