David Cameron to urge China to take tougher stance on Houthi attacks in the Red Sea

Reports have suggested China has urged Iran to help rein in Houthi attacks in recent weeks
Reports have suggested China has urged Iran to help rein in Houthi attacks in recent weeks - YAHYA ARHAB/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Lord Cameron has said he is planning to lobby China to take a tougher stance on Houthi attacks in the Red Sea in his first meeting with Beijing as Foreign Secretary.

The Cabinet minister said he would be piling pressure on Chinese counterparts to support “freedom of navigation” in the region, where Iran-backed rebels have been targeting Western ships with missiles and drones in retaliation for Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip.

China has claimed it has been making active efforts to ease tensions in the Red Sea from the very beginning, with reports suggesting it has urged Iran, with which it has a close trading relationship, to help rein in Houthi attacks in recent weeks.

But it has been accused of seeking to protect its own interests, rather than pushing for a full de-escalation. Last month, the Houthis said Chinese and Russian ships would get safe passage, while others have been forced to re-route.

Taking questions from peers on Tuesday, Lord Cameron said he would urge the Chinese to do more to promote freedom of navigation during talks in the coming days.

“One of the things we’re doing more generally is stressing the importance of the freedom of navigation, that lies behind the action that we’re taking in the Red Sea,” he said.

“And I’m going to be hopefully holding some discussions with Chinese counterparts in days to come, where I think we’ll be asking them, given the importance of trade to China, that they should be as fully supportive of freedom of navigation as we are, because that matters wherever you are in the world, including the Taiwan Straits.”

Lord Cameron, seen here with president Xi Jinping in 2015, said it was 'important' for the UK to have a relationship with China
Lord Cameron, seen here with president Xi Jinping in 2015, said it was 'important' for the UK to have a relationship with China - ANDY RAIN/AFP/Getty Images

It will be the first time Lord Cameron has met with Beijing since taking on the Foreign Secretary brief.

He told peers it was “important” for the UK to have a relationship with China, but noted the two nations share “many disagreements”.

“They are an epoch-defining challenge, as the integrated review puts it, but where we can find areas to progress discussions, we should,” he said.

It represents a stark shift in tone from Lord Cameron’s days as prime minister when he hailed a “golden era” in relations between the two nations.

Since taking on his new role, the Foreign Secretary has sought to toughen up his department’s approach to China - including by publicly condemning the detention of Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy newspaper publisher facing a possible life sentence in Hong Kong.

It comes as Chinese shipping companies have ramped up transits through the Red Sea as they bet on immunity from Houthi attacks.

A flurry of smaller firms are making new journeys through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, broadcasting that they are from China, according to experts.

Chinese-linked container ships accounted for less than 15 per cent of Red Sea transits last year, according to the shipping journal Lloyd’s List. By the second week of January, the share had nearly doubled to 28 per cent.

The MV Bahijah is one of many ships that have abandoned voyages through the Red Sea
The MV Bahijah is one of many ships that have abandoned voyages through the Red Sea - RICHARD WAINWRIGHT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Large container traffic has plunged by as much as 90 per cent since Houthi rebels ramped up attacks on ships travelling off the coast of Yemen. Western ships moving between Asia and Europe have rerouted en masse around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid missile strikes.

As Western operators pull back, Cichen Shen, from Lloyd’s List, said Chinese vessels were seeking to “profit from that high-risk but high-reward market”.

In 2015, during his time as prime minister, Lord Cameron hosted a visit to the UK by Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, and declared: “This visit marks the start of a new era. Some have called it a golden era in relations between Britain and China.”

But in an interview with The in December, he said: “I think things have changed. There’s still a need to engage with China, particularly over issues like climate change – we can’t solve problems of climate change while ignoring a fifth of humanity.

“But quite clearly we face a more aggressive, assertive China, and so the other elements are of policy – how we protect ourselves with more hardened security against things like cyber attacks and the rest of it, and how we align ourselves with our allies so that we are strong together. These are very important parts.”

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