China’s navy has started escorting Chinese cargo ships through the Red Sea, according to a shipping company and Chinese state media reports. This comes as many cargo shipping companies have decided to avoid the globally important trade passage because of attacks from Houthi rebels.

Since November, Iran-backed Houthis have launched scores of drone and missile attacks on ships passing through the Red Sea, acts that they say are in support of Palestinian militant group Hamas in the war with Israel.

A U.S.-led coalition has responded to the attacks with missile strikes on Houthi positions, backed by a collective force from Bahrain, Britain, Canada, France, Holland, Italy, Norway, the Seychelles, and Spain. But they have so far not stopped ships from being targeted.

And while most ship companies have re-routed to go around Africa, doubling costs and shipping times, Sea Legend Shipping, a Qingdao-based company registered in Singapore, is actively promoting its cargo business through the Red Sea.

The company says that since January, the Chinese navy has provided security escorts for its five cargo ships in the Red Sea, making it one of the few still operating in the region, according to Chinese media.

In an emailed response to a request for confirmation and comment on the scope of protection being provided, Yuan Mu, a spokesperson for China’s Embassy in Washington, referred VOA to departments directly responsible.

“On the whole, China stands ready to work with all parties to safeguard the safety of international shipping lanes,” the spokesperson said in the emailed response.

Vessels with Russian fuel reportedly avoid route

Although the Houthis have said that ships from some countries, including China and Russia, can safely pass through the Red Sea, a British oil tanker carrying Russian oil was hit by a Houthi missile and caught fire last week.

Shipping news site reports that even tankers carrying Russian fuel are now avoiding the Red Sea.

About 40% of trade between Europe and Asia goes through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and about 12% of the globe’s sea trade in oil.

Jennifer Kavanagh, senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Chinese ships should be able to pass through the Red Sea without being attacked, but the attacks have already meant longer transit times between China and Europe, higher energy prices, shipping and insurance rates.

“Having direct coordinated convoys of the U.S. and PLA (People’s Liberation Army) vessels seems fanciful, but certainly there are ways that the Chinese military assets in the region could contribute to the security of maritime passageways,” she said.

U.S. National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said on February 1 that he could not confirm reports that the Chinese navy is escorting ships in the Red Sea and that he knew of no coordination between the navies of China and the United States or coalition forces.

“We’ve said many times that if the Chinese want to be helpful to this effort about protecting shipping in the Red Sea, then we would certainly welcome that.”

Attacks could drive up prices, warns IMF

Western governments have been urging China to pressure its ally Tehran to tell the Houthis to back off.

Chong Ja-Ian, a non-resident scholar at Carnegie China and associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, told VOA that Beijing could ask Iran to discourage Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea while the U.S. tries to take out imminent threats and capabilities.

“The two sides may work alongside each other not because they like the other, but because issues like supply chains and the availability of energy are of value to both Beijing and Washington,” said Chong.

The International Monetary Fund warned in a January 30 report that continued attacks in the Red Sea were putting at risk an improved outlook for global economic growth by threatening to drive up commodity prices.

Ralph Ossa, chief economist at the World Trade Organization, told Reuters on January 29 they may lower their trade growth forecast due to the potential impact of Suez Canal disruptions.