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What is at stake in the Red Sea?

Since November 2023, container ships in the Red Sea have been under attack by Houthi militants. On 11th January, after strong signals of condemnation, the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US) struck Houthi targets. But disruption to the Red Sea remains ongoing, raising questions regarding the need for further military action, or the costs of inaction. But what is at stake in the Red Sea? And what should the UK do next? The Council on Geostrategy asks eight strategic experts in today’s Big Ask.

Mike Beardall, Naval Review

Effective maritime security equals national prosperity, so every day safe navigation is disrupted, the recovery of an already fragile UK economy is being damaged badly.

The Houthis, Somali pirates, and Ukrainians have all demonstrated recently that you do not need a navy to contest the maritime space. The Houthis are but one of a number of snakes which the Israeli-Hamas crisis has awakened. The Iranian feeder of the snakes continues to cajole and supply them.

There is another complex problem which we will need to decide to treat or solve: threats to freedom of navigation. To date, United Nations Resolution 2722, and a coalition of the willing led by the UK and the US, is attempting to deal with the symptom rather than the cause. This is a problem which has been brewing for months, and as ever, presidents and prime ministers ultimately require military options as diplomatic ones fail. 

As with most maritime matters, they rarely cut through the noise and achieve national awareness. So for the navies of this coalition, this is a big opportunity to explain and make their case why very expensive capable assets are required to maintain freedom of navigation and trade, and the fact that you do need a very capable naval coalition and action from the sea to address this problem.

William Freer, Council on Geostrategy

The interruption of commercial maritime activity between Asia and Europe is nothing new. Following the Six Day War, the Suez Canal was closed from 1967-1975. This resulted in extra costs from the increased length of journey for goods (particularly oil) transiting between Europe and Asia. But life carried on – it just got more expensive. There are both similarities and differences with the situation in the Red Sea today.

The most obvious direct impact for the UK, as was the case in 1967-1975, is that of inflation. The Houthi strikes will lead to higher costs for goods imported from Asia due to rocketing insurance prices and/or the extra costs of longer transits for those ships which choose to divert. This is happening at a time when inflation is already high, although it has been coming down. 

But more important than the direct financial costs are the wider implications of inaction. In 1967 the shipping was stopped due to Egypt blocking the Suez Canal; this time innocent shipping is coming under direct and indiscriminate attack. A precedent for not defending international shipping under attack is not one the UK and US want to set. Although the Bab-el-Mandeb chokepoint may not be critical (higher inflation would be bad but not catastrophic), the free flow of international shipping more widely very much is. 

Showing actors, both state and non-state, that attempts to interfere with shipping will be met with strong resolve is vital.

Alina Frolova, Centre for Defence Studies (Ukraine)

The Red Sea crisis is disrupting global trade. The price for oil rose by nearly 2% on Friday 12th January alone, and container shipments passing through the Red Sea this month are almost half of what they were last year.

While the situation appears straightforward on the surface, nuanced analysis from a geopolitical standpoint changes the picture. Considering the ongoing war in the Black Sea and the resulting impacts on global trade, the current crisis in the Red Sea emerges as a component of a broader global endgame orchestrated by world tyrannies Russia and Iran, whose aim is to disrupt or even upend established international norms. 

In the Black Sea, blatant violations of free trade principles, infringements on innocent passage rights, extensive mining activities, and breaches of national borders failed to evoke a robust response from free and open global powers; most of them were willing to adapt rather than react. This lax response can be seen as somewhat of an invitation which may have encouraged the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East, heightened tensions between North and South Korea, and led to increasingly aggressive rhetoric from the People’s Republic of China towards Taiwan. 

A British and American led effort to discourage Houthi attacks in the Red Sea will not solve the main problem at hand: deterring aggressive autocratic regimes. Nor will it help Ukraine, and others facing threats such as Israel, from winning their respective conflicts as quickly as possible whilst making aggressors pay the heaviest price possible. 

Only through demonstrations of unity, a readiness to activate military force, and a determination to protect the free and open international order by democratic states can the problem be solved. Indeed, the key to unlocking a solution in the Red Sea lies in the Black.

Basil Germond, University of Lancaster

Operation Prosperity Guardian has been established to defend commercial ships against attacks, for example by destroying incoming missiles and aerial and maritime drones. This defensive strategy has not yet succeeded in restoring the maritime sector’s confidence in the Red Sea route.

Airstrikes against Houthi positions on land have somewhat degraded their offensive capabilities. However, it has not been sufficient to deter them from further attacking commercial ships. Indeed, unlike pirates who are motivated by profit and avoid confrontation, Houthis are motivated by politics and ideology. Consequently, it is difficult to deter them since they are content to engage in lethal combat and are possibly even welcoming military escalation in the region.

At the time of writing, neither defence nor deterrence has proved decisive in upholding freedom of the seas. Increased insurance premiums and the cost of rerouting ships will impact the global economy slowly but steadily. 

What is at stake for liberal nations in the short-term is their ability to secure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea since the global maritime supply chain is crucial for liberal economies; the Houthis and their Iranian backers are well aware of this leverage. In the long-term, the future contours of the international order are at stake: will liberal nations maintain their maritime preponderance and thus their global leadership?

Bruce Jones, Brookings Institution

The Red Sea is only one of several fronts where the West’s dominance of the high seas – and our economies’ reliance on sea-based globalisation – is under pressure. We have seen similar dynamics in the Black Sea, threatening global food flows, and in the Baltic Sea, threatening globalisation’s most vital and least defended network – undersea communications cables. What is at stake? The very heart of globalisation, which is the just-in-time flows of goods (commercial, food, energy and data) by sea. 

We could reroute around the Red Sea – at substantial cost. (The cost is not measured in the extra crew and fuel costs of the longer route – it is measured in backlogs and log jams in just-in-time production on a global scale.) In doing so, we could in effect deny the Houthis (and via them Iran) their targets. But there is a serious risk to that, namely highlighting to Iran that they can disrupt the flow of shipping through the Straits of Hormuz. That route, we can not avoid. 

In the coming several years we are going to see more, not less, challenges to the West’s dominance of the high seas – from Russian submarines, asymmetric weapons, and from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). We need a better division of labour, and to reinvigorate our lagging seapower.

Julien Lalanne de Saint-Quentin, Council on Geostrategy

This author wrote earlier about the growing mismatch, in sophistication, price and numbers, between the ‘high end’ nature of the Western arsenal and the infinitely less sophisticated but plethoric – and easier to replace – resources of its adversaries. It is a textbook case of ‘If your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail’.

But what is most striking is the moment of truth which we are now experiencing with regard to the freedom of navigation (often confused, incidentally, with the Grotian concept of freedom of the seas, which is distinct and in some cases even opposed). Is freedom of navigation, like free trade, a value, universal by nature, which must be defended as a matter of principle, as the strategic choices of certain Western countries seem to illustrate? Or an interest which mainly derives from commercial power, as practised by Victorian Britain in the 19th century?

In 2008, the PLAN became involved in the Gulf of Aden as part of operations against Somali pirates. It built a major base at Doraleh in Djibouti. Today, it is conspicuous by its absence in the Red Sea given that its economic interests are also affected. For the moment, however, it appears then that it is only American, British and French warships which are trying (with uncertain success) to protect freedom of navigation, which Chinese trade in this region arguably relies on more heavily.

Jennifer Parker, Australian Defence Force Academy at the University of New South Wales (Canberra)

When considering what is at stake in the Red Sea, much analysis has focused on the economic impact to the global economy of diverting ships away from the normally congested waterways of the southern Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, and Gulf of Aden.

The fact that nearly 15% of the world’s seaborne trade passes through the Red Sea accounting for approximately 40% of trade between Asia and Europe rolls off the tongue of every journalist. And it is true, as increasing numbers of shipping companies seek to avoid the area and transit the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa, the economic impacts are compounding. 

But what is at stake in the Red Sea is much more than disruptions to trade; it is the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation which underwrites the maritime order, and in many ways the maritime order underwrites global stability. 

Whilst conflicts in the Middle East and Europe rage, tensions in the Indo-Pacific have the potential to drag the world into a conflict, the size and scale of which has not been seen globally in decades. The Indo-Pacific by its very nature is a maritime region with many of its flashpoints manifesting in the maritime domain. A failure of the international community to stand up for the safety of seafarers and the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation will send a clear message that the principles which have underwritten the maritime global order no longer take precedence. This is a dangerous message which must be avoided.

Emma Salisbury, Council on Geostrategy

The ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are not only dangerous but also severely destabilising to the international order. The firing of missiles at commercial and naval vessels is a direct threat to freedom of navigation – the foundation of open global commerce – in one of the world’s most vital waterways. The attacks also threaten the lives of international mariners simply trying to do their job. This is a significant international challenge, and one which rightly demands collective action.

The recent strikes by British and American forces on Houthi launch sites demonstrate our shared commitment to protecting freedom of navigation – one of the core roles of a navy. Disrupting and degrading their capabilities is important, as well as signalling that the international community will not allow such attacks to happen without response. Malign actors like the Houthis must be held accountable when they threaten lives and freedoms in this way.

The aim now must be to de-escalate and restore stability, and here military action plays a vital part. It is heartening to see so many nations committing support to Operation Prosperity Guardian – other nations who rely on global commerce, but are unwilling to defend it, should be contributing as well. 

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