Chinese officials have asked their Iranian counterparts to help rein in attacks on ships in the Red Sea by the Iran-backed Houthis, or risk harming business relations with Beijing, four Iranian sources and a diplomat familiar with the matter said.
The discussions about the attacks and trade between China and Iran took place at several recent meetings in Beijing and Tehran, the Iranian sources said, declining to provide details about when they took place or who attended.
“Basically, China says: ‘If our interests are harmed in any way, it will impact our business with Tehran. So tell the Houthis to show restraint’,” said one Iranian official briefed on the talks, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The attacks, which the Houthis say are in support of Palestinians in Gaza, have raised the cost of shipping and insurance by disrupting a key trade route between Asia and Europe used widely by ships from China.
The Chinese officials, however, did not make any specific comments or threats about how Beijing’s trading relationship with Iran could be affected if its interests were damaged by Houthi attacks, the four Iranian sources said.
While China has been Iran’s biggest trading partner for the past decade, their trade relationship is lopsided.
Chinese oil refiners, for example, bought over 90% of Iran’s crude exports last year, according to tanker tracking data from trade analytics firm Kpler, as U.S. sanctions kept many other customers away and Chinese firms profited from heavy discounts.
Iranian oil, though, only accounts for 10% of China’s crude imports and Beijing has an array of suppliers that could plug shortfalls from elsewhere.
The Iranian sources said Beijing had made it clear it would be very disappointed with Tehran if any vessels linked to China were hit, or the country’s interests were affected in any way.
But while China was important to Iran, Tehran also had proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, besides the Houthis in Yemen, and its regional alliances and priorities played a major role in its decision making, one of the Iranian insiders said.
Asked for comment about meetings with Iran to discuss the Red Sea attacks, China’s ministry of foreign affairs said: “China is a sincere friend of the countries of the Middle East and is committed to promoting regional security and stability and seeking common development and prosperity.”
“We firmly support Middle Eastern countries in strengthening their strategic independence and uniting and collaborating to resolve regional security issues,” it told Reuters.
Iran’s foreign ministry was not immediately available to comment.
With inputs from NDTV