Members of the Yemeni Coast Guard affiliated with the Houthi group patrol the sea as demonstrators march through the Red Sea port city of Hodeida in solidarity with the people of Gaza on January 4, 2024. (AFP)

US in the Red Sea: Security Concerns or Power Play?

Although the U.S. has rallied countries to fight the Houthis under the guise of bringing security to commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea, its actual motivations go much further.

February 4, 2024
Jin Liangxiang

The waters of the Red Sea are heating up. In recent weeks, the United States has intensified efforts to clamp down on actions taken by the Houthis, a Yemen-based movement otherwise known as Ansar Allah, to disrupt maritime shipping believed to be connected to Israel as a retaliation for its near-total destruction of the Gaza Strip. In response, the U.S. mobilized a small naval coalition—under the moniker Operation Prosperity Guardian—to attack Houthi targets, including inside Yemen. While freedom of navigation in a vital commercial waterway like the Red Sea is certainly worthy of attention, the U.S.-led response has only made matters worse and points to motives extending beyond what the U.S. has offered publicly.  


The necessity to address the Red Sea crisis and safeguard maritime shipping

There is little argument that the Red Sea crisis must be addressed, as security incidents in the shipping lane could seriously affect the transportation of commodities between major world economies, including the oil exporting countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the European Union, the U.S. and China. According to statistics, more than 20,000 vessels navigate through the Red Sea every year, making up 14% of the global total of freight volume. As such, this crisis poses a serious challenge to international maritime security. While the Houthis claim to be targeting only ships connected to Israel—and later to U.S. and UK vessels in retaliation for coalition assaults—the psychological effect is broad, which has been demonstrated in the suspension of navigation through the Red Sea by commercial interests beyond these countries.  

U.S. concern for freedom of navigation is not surprising, having been the signature of U.S. global strategy for many years. However, the current U.S. position in regard to Houthi actions in the Red Sea is not persuasive. This crisis, by nature, is spillover from the atrocities unfolding in Gaza. The proper solution to the problem is to work for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, or at least make efforts to de-escalate the tensions, which should not be a difficult objective to achieve. 

Thus, by taking steps to propagate the Red Sea crisis while ignoring the misery in Palestine, it is reasonable to believe that the motives of the Biden administration extend far beyond maritime security.  


The United States’ First Motive: Relieving International Pressure

The first such motive is likely to divert international and domestic pressure mounting over Biden’s handling of the Palestine issue. Despite its fierce efforts to defend its discourse on the inhumane support for Israel’s operations in the occupied Palestinian territories, the U.S. cannot reconcile this support with its long-held claims to uphold human rights. To put it another way, Biden’s unconditional support for Israel’s military actions blatantly demonstrate its hypocrisy on the issue of human rights. 

Over the past few months, the U.S. has found itself totally isolated at the United Nations and other international institutions over its policy on Israel-Palestine. While Israel pretends to be undisturbed by these criticisms, the U.S. cannot afford to act accordingly as it tries to maintain its self-proclaimed role in global and regional leadership. Indeed, the fact that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made four visits to the Middle East since October 7 signifies U.S. sensitivity to the pressure of the international community. 

Creating new narratives and shaping new agendas is a common tactic employed by major international actors to push forward their strategies. The United States is clearly using the Red Sea crisis as a means of escaping global pressure over Gaza. 


The United States’ Second Motive: Re-mobilizing its European Allies

Washington’s second apparent motive is to remobilize its allies within the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In spite of its intensive diplomatic efforts, recent months have seen the divisions between the U.S. and its European and Arab allies grow significantly. Arab countries in particular, including Egypt, Jordan and GCC countries have been extremely dissatisfied with the U.S. policy of unconditionally supporting Israel’s brutal actions in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, Israel’s campaign could not only create refugee crises for neighboring Arab countries but also provoke social turmoil as the Arab publics overwhelmingly identify with the legitimate cause of Palestinians.  

Even Europe has not been immune to discord, with major differences between the policies of Germany and the UK and those of Spain and Belgium, not to mention between governments siding with Israel and large swathes of their citizenries in support of Palestinians.  

In any case, the creation of deep divisions between the U.S. and its partners over Gaza could have a negative effect on these relationships more broadly. Therefore, Washington urgently needs an issue that the U.S. and its allies can unite around, and the Red Sea crisis became a viable option. Nevertheless, attempts to marshal a coalition were far from a total success. Only a handful of states, including only one Arab country—the tiny island nation of Bahrain—joined in despite the huge impact the crisis was having on many of their economies. 


The United States’ Third Motive: Strengthening its Control over Maritime Passages

Thirdly, U.S. policy in the Red Sea is motivated by its intention to strengthen its control over maritime choke points, which is a long-standing priority of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. The latest U.S. National Security Strategy document, which was published in October 2022, clearly states that “the United States will not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardize freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al Mandab,” suggesting U.S. maritime hegemony in the region.  

Strategic competition with China is regarded as the priority of U.S. global strategy, despite Chinese attempts at not defining its relations with the U.S. in terms of “competition.” Within this context, the U.S. regards control of the Red Sea as a particular strategic target as it is the main sea corridor carrying Chinese products to Europe and North Africa. Notably, the U.S. tried and failed to persuade European countries first to de-couple and then to de-risk their economic relations with China. But by controlling the Red Sea, the U.S. can weaken trade between China and European countries. 

Although the U.S. remains the largest military presence in the region and leads the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a massive multi-national partnership headquartered in Bahrain, the U.S. seemingly never feels sufficiently confident about its control of these waters. Playing up the Red Sea crisis could be interpreted as the U.S. intentionally employing the opportunity to strengthen its control of a critical choke point.  


The United States Seeks to Weaken Trade Between China and European Countries

One could argue that the U.S. is intentionally sabotaging the sea lane so as to undermine trade between China and its partners in the GCC and Europe. Despite it being obvious that military actions in the Red Sea and Yemen could easily take the security situation from bad to worse, the U.S. continues to adopt military actions as the best course. The worsening security situation and the psychological effects have both polluted the atmosphere of trade between all the major economies as a result. 

In sum, the security problem in the Red Sea should be one that is easily addressed. It is true that Houthis are causing problems, but their objectives are not without a reasonable basis. Unfortunately, the U.S. has not chosen a reasonable way to solve the problem, but rather a route that only makes matters worse. Perhaps the explanation is that its motives extend beyond the problem at hand.   


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.

Issue: Great Power Competition, Israel War on Gaza, Regional Relations, U.S. Foreign Policy
Country: Iran, Palestine-Israel, Yemen


Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies