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Russia and China shouldn’t cut a special deal with the Houthis

Instead of negotiating safe passage deal for their own ships, Moscow and Beijing might better direct diplomatic leverage to keeping the Bab el Mandeb open for all

Most seafarers won’t even know the beneficial ownership of the vessels on which they serve. But they have every reason to be afraid if the Houthis get it wrong

IRANIAN assistance has transformed the Houthis from an insurgent band into a powerful force that has lucked out thanks to an outsized influence over a bottleneck for international trade. But the Yemeni rebels have a credibility problem.

Throughout the years of patient UN-sponsored diplomacy that salved FSO Safer and thus averted an environmental and economic disaster on their doorstep, the Houthis routinely reneged on agreements.

Even the delivery of a paid-for tanker to replace the rusting timebomb they were holding ransom was met with threats and broken promises.

If there really is a formal agreement to allow safe passage through the Red Sea for Russian and Chinese ships, those countries would be well advised to factor in the dubious bona fides of their negotiating partners.

Leave aside for now how Russia and China bring their own reliability baggage to the table. The very notion of a deal of this kind is freighted with practical and geopolitical question marks.

In consequence, the public promises to Moscow and Beijing in recent weeks have understandably been met with little confidence on the part of shipowners related to either state.

How things would work out in practice remains unclear. Will Moscow offer up up a daily roster of IMO numbers to avoid? Will Beijing buy off missile and drone attacks via Alipay, the domestic equivalent of PayPal?

At the very least, there needs to be a cold hard look at the Houthis’ track record for accuracy before ships flock back from the Cape of Good Hope. Targeting criteria has been even more inaccurate than the missiles themselves, even if sections of the western media sadly seem hellbent on doing the Houthis’ homework for them.

Given a professed desire to only take out vessels with US, UK and/or Israeli links, a generous view is that they have only had around a two-thirds success rate in damaging ships with even tenuous links to the ostensible quarry.

Simply declaring war on the bulk tramp shipping community — who are currently taking most of the pain — would statistically make more sense.

Several ships carrying Russian crude have been singled out, either through poor aim or antiquated intelligence. While the two most recent attacks were based on out-of-date records, a significant proportion are entirely random, whatever the skewed national identity lens deployed.

If China is thinking of relying on the Iranian spy ship Behshad (IMO: 9167289) to direct missiles in the right direction, what criteria are they proposing to use? Are we talking about Chinese-owned, or Chinese-operated ships? What about Chinese cargo? Will destination or source of the most recent voyages be factored into the equation?

As things stand, threat levels for ‘Chinese’ or ‘Russian’ ships are already lower than they are for western tonnage. That is reflected in vessel traffic currently passing through the Bab el Mandeb.

Over the past two weeks, 11% of traffic was beneficially owned by Chinese entities, while Russia accounted for another 4%. Navies will be carefully watching whether these figures now increase.



Interestingly, that the European naval operation defending ships in the Red Sea is being led by a distinctly Greek dominated unit does not appear to have excited too much Houthi ire. Greek beneficially-owned vessels make up 17% of traffic.

Both Beijing and Moscow have openly questioned the legitimacy of the US and UK operations against the Houthis. But surely their leverage would be better expended in keeping an international trade chokepoint open, to the benefit of all?

Geopolitical altruism is probably too big an ask, and Putin will find the opportunity for a bit of tit-for-tat retaliation against western interests irresistible. But he should not forget that self-identifying ships as ‘Russian’ could open them to more focussed sanctions from the governments currently prising open the beneficial ownership links of the dark fleet*.

The only group who can legitimately claim that Houthi attacks are indiscriminate are seafarers.

The families of the two Filipinos and one Vietnamese national who died in the rocket strike on True Confidence (IMO: 9460784) would no doubt have some ethical questions about this entire project.

Most seafarers won’t even know the beneficial ownership of the vessels on which they serve. But they have every reason to be afraid if the Houthis get it wrong.


* Lloyd’s List defines a tanker as part of the dark fleet if it is aged 15 years or over, anonymously owned and/or has a corporate structure designed to obfuscate beneficial ownership discovery, solely deployed in sanctioned oil trades, and engaged in one or more of the deceptive shipping practices outlined in US State Department guidance issued in May 2020. The figures exclude tankers tracked to government-controlled shipping entities such as Russia’s Sovcomflot, or Iran’s National Iranian Tanker Co, and those already sanctioned.

Download our explainer on the different risk profiles of the dark fleet here



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