The Red Sea: Think it through before jumping!

Dec 22, 2023
Gulf of Aden area, political map. Deepwater gulf between Yemen, Djibouti, the Guardafui Channel, Socotra and Somalia, connecting the Arabian Sea through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait with the Red Sea.

Last week the self-appointed “strategic” experts’ in the Opposition predictably were quick off the mark to criticise Prime Minister Albanese for taking time to carefully consider a US Navy approach (in public) for an RAN ship to be deployed to yet another US “coalition of the willing” in the Middle East. This time to mount an international response to attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea by the rebel Houthi regime controlling much of Yemen.

From its outset the Albanese Government correctly has recognised that our recent past is all too littered by Australian governments falling over themselves to rush into and respond to US requests for military support especially, but not only, in in the Middle East. Memories of the WMD farce which led us into Iraq remain. As also is the increasing scepticism in the US about its headlong rush into the “war of terror” following the Twin Towers tragedy which cost the US (and Australia) so dearly in personnel killed and injured let alone in years and dollars. It also provided the first test for Albanese’s commitment to prioritising the urgent strategic need to boost our presence and capability in the Indo Pacific. There had been a hasty announcement in early October by Defence Minister Marles of the despatch of a “significant” increase in forces along with two RAAF aircraft to an undisclosed location in the region as a contingency in case of need for evacuation of Australians from the area.

So it was reassuring that the Government has taken its time to give very careful consideration of the US request for the deployment of an RAN vessel to help in the Red Sea. Its focus should immediately have switched to the lessons from our recent military expeditions with the Americans in that part of the world. High on that list should be the fullest possible understanding of what the Americans have in mind as its principal objectives, the risks of it spilling into a wider confrontation, and some idea of an exit strategy. For one quick example, how likely would it be that the RAN vessel might have to go beyond purely anti-missile or drone defence into countermeasures which would involve firing at Houthi small boats or even missile sites inside the Yemen – all with incipient civilian casualties? Who would issue the commands for such action? Who would accept responsibility for damage to international shipping and contents in any military attempt to free them from Houthi control? And there are many more.

For starters, the USN approach was confused by the USN admiral pairing the Red Sea shipping defence with wider US concerns about attacks by Iranian proxies on US forces spread throughout the area. With all of this on the run as Defense Secretary Austin was hotfooting it to Israel to try to pressure the Israelis to temper their brutal Gaza invasion. He announced a new US led task force with the beguiling title Operation Prosperity Guardian involving the US, the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain. It will be run under the umbrella of a pre-existing multilateral grouping in the region, the Combined Maritime Forces, and the leadership of its Task Force 153, which focuses on the Red Sea. It is co-located with USN Central Command and 5th Fleet HQ in Bahrain.

As the Australian media have reported, apart from the pushback on broader strategic concerns in government about diluting capability in the Asia Pacific, Canberra also had issues about availability and capability of RAN ships. The media, again presumably based on leaks, claimed that the government had been able to intervene with Washington to have the request for a ship be replaced with one for personnel to be based in the new taskforce HQ in Bahrain. While removing the ADF from the actual naval patrols this is likely to get it more involved in any of the wider American campaign against Iran which is largely based out of Bahrain.

And of course the request came hot on the heels of a US Congressional vote approving the pathway for AUKUS. A bit too soon to be calling in the chits! Though it was disappointing to see armchair critics in Australia claiming that the government’s timely consideration of the request was inconsistent with the global spirit of AUKUS.

The speed with which the US has acted to create the new task force probably has been dictated in part by the White House’s overriding concern about the striking loss of international support for Israel’s savage war on Gaza and critical US military supplies for it. In all of this attention should also have been alerted by the distinct lack of enthusiasm among Arab and Muslim stakeholders (especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt) in the region for joining this new US led task force. Some commentators with maritime backgrounds have also speculated about the physical challenges the new task force will likely confront. It is of an order of complexity well above that of the earlier campaign against Somali based pirates given the weaponry the Houthi have at their disposal.

The speed with which the major international shipping companies have acted to divert ships away from the Suez and Red Sea underlines the urgency of resolving the crisis. The outcome of the rushed special Ministerial meeting being held by the US has yet to emerge. More naval hardware crammed into the Red Sea however is unlikely to provide a sustainable longer term answer and, in fact, could seriously risk spillage into wider regional military confrontation.

The appalling series of events in Israel and Gaza clearly have changed the landscape in the Middle East and significantly diminished US influence in the region – and, arguably, more globally. This calls for a fundamental review of strategies within and towards the region. I am no expert in the area but it is abundantly clear that the old brew is not working – if it ever has for so many years. One major take away – especially for Australia given our strategic considerations – is just how successful China has been in its quiet, assiduous penetration into the region where hitherto it had left the running to the US and Russia. Xi is well and truly part of the equation in the Middle East now – much to the chagrin of Washington. Very skilfully, China has managed to encourage the Saudis and Iranians to patch up their long testy relationship – no mean feat given the depth of their enmity – and one unlikely to be welcomed in Washington. The Chinese have developed a close relationship with the Arab and Muslim caucus and as rotating chair of the UN Security Council put its head above the international parapet by announcing its own plan for solving the Israel:Gaza dilemma.

Of particular relevance to the present crisis, is the critical importance of the Suez/Red Sea shipping lanes to Chinese national interests. It is estimated that 60% of Chinese trade with Europe passes through the Suez. For this reason it has established a naval base in Djibouti (along with the US, France and a number of others) and its ships participated in the original multinational anti-piracy task force in the Arabian Sea.

In recent years, China’s presence in Egypt’s strategic ports has grown noticeably. This includes the involvement of both private and state-owned Chinese companies in the partial acquisition, development, and operation of Egyptian seaports and terminals. In addition to a Chinese state-owned company holding stakes in two ports at the northern and southern entrances of the Suez Canal. This coincides with significant Chinese investments in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, a 455-sq-km special economic zone located along a maritime corridor of vital importance to global trade.

Both Washington and Beijing share enormous national interests in the safety of international shipping in the Suez/Red Sea – both directly and through the knock on effect to world trade and the world economy. The immediate US response is so Pavlovian and so “go for your guns”! Worse than that it lacks any exploration of possible different ways to achieve even better outcomes. And clearly risks likely widening the war in some challenging ways which have not yet revealed themselves.

Perish the thought! Would it not be worth trying some real statecraft with the Chinese who also have substantial shared interests in this shipping route? Both Biden and Xi have given some recent indications that they are keen to cooperate on international issues where they can – and this has been demonstrated by their discussions leading up to COP28. If the level of influence Iran has on the Houthis is as claimed by the US, it would seem very worthwhile to encourage China to use whatever leverage it has on Iran to persuade the Houthis to back off from their attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea. This could pave the way to a peaceful resolution to this issue and potentially more quickly. For much the same reason this could also be a topic for Canberra’s discussions with Beijing.

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