Photo’s Source: Encyclopedia Britannica: Map of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait


A strait with great geopolitical importance, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, also known as Bab el-Mandeb, commonly known as the “Strait of Bab el-Mandeb” or “the Mandab Strait” (the Mandab Strait) is a strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Djibouti at the southern end of the Red Sea. It is located between the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in Asia and the African continent, thus linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The strait is about 26-32 kilometers wide, with an average depth of 150 meters, between which some volcanic islands are scattered. At its narrowest point, of only 26 kilometers, it limits tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide entry and exit lanes. With the increasing global economic integration and energy demand, the strategic importance of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait has become increasingly prominent.

The importance of the Bab el-Mandeb also lies in its geographical location and geopolitical value as a shipping lane. It not only affects global trade activities, but also has a direct impact on the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

Due to the recent dire situation in this “Gate of Tears” region, on February 19, 2024, the Council of the European Union issued a statement indicating that the year-long EU Red Sea convoy operation would be officially launched from that day onwards. As such, the operation would be carried out along the main sea lines of communication in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Strait of Hormuz, as well as international waters in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf.

Since the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, located at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, is a vital maritime channel connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe, this paper will thoroughly examine the geopolitical and geographic position’s significance of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, including its strategic role in global trade, energy transportation, geopolitical competition, and maritime security. It will also discuss the policy trends of the strait’s neighboring countries and China’s strategic interests and countermeasures in this region.

The Strategic Value of the Geographical Location of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait

Bab el-Mandeb’s irreplaceable geopolitical importance is given by the role of the Suez Canal for the global supply chains. In this context, the six-day grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal in 2021 resulted in a loss of approximately $9 billion per day in trade, which means that if passage through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait were to be closed, it would be economically costly.

More importantly, most of the oil exports from the Persian Gulf through the Suez Canal and the Sumed pipeline also need to pass through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. In the first half of 2023, about 9.2 million barrels of oil per day passed through the Suez Canal, accounting for about 9% of the global demand, which boosted 4.1% compared to the whole of 2021 (EIA, 2023). If cargo ships are unable to pass through the strait, the Sumed pipeline will be the only means of oil transportation for most Persian Gulf oil exporters.

An Overall Fragile Region and Disordered Strategic Position

The special characteristic of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, as compared to other strategic points, is not that its control has been repeatedly contested, but on the contrary, that no single actor has been able to establish a sound governance mechanism. On the one hand, the political instability of the countries on both sides of the strait has resulted in no single country being capable of exercising direct control over the strait. On the west coast, Eritrea and Djibouti had a border conflict in 2008, which did not end until the formal signing of a new peace agreement in September 2018, and in November 2022, Eritrea once again engaged in the conflict in Ethiopia. As for Somalia, despite the fact that it has been nearly 12 years since the end of the civil war, insecurity within the country continues to the present day. On the east coast, Yemen has been in a state of civil war from 2015 until today.

On the other hand, the factors contributing to the instability of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait are also compounding each other, creating further disorder in the strait. The long period of war and economic decline led to the emergence of piracy and smuggling at the beginning of the 21st century. Despite the dispatch of warships by various countries to combat hijacking and other related acts in the following two decades greatly which weakened this destabilizing factor, the underlying factors that created piracy have not disappeared. This has led to the fact that if the convoy operations are disrupted, the destabilizing factor that leads to the disappearance of this security factor will be combined with other destabilizing factors, resulting in a relatively chaotic situation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

Since the rise of Houthis has changed the geopolitical balance of power in the Middle East, it put the strategic interests of the US and Israel in the region at risk. In addition, countries in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region would also face great security risks if they want to enter and exit the Middle East through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. This change has forced countries to reassess their geopolitical interests and routes, which to a certain extent is affecting global trade activities and modes of transportation.

For example, triggered by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Houthi attacks on ships passing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to Israeli ports indirectly led to the further intensification of piracy. In December 2023, Malta-flagged commercial vessel MV Ruen was hijacked by pirates in a way that has not happened to a large civilian vessel in the past six years.

In one recent event, the Houthis’ successful hijacking of the Israeli oil tanker Central Park and their attempt to retaliate against the US and Japanese fleets by launching anti-ship ballistic missiles indicate that they have taken full control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. As a result of this change, US and Israeli ships have been threatened and subjected to Houthi control and interference in their passage through the Suez Canal. Therefore, it can be argued that the rise of Houthis has led to their growing geopolitical influence in the region, and a reshaping of the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

The Strategic Position of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in the Geopolitical Competition and Maritime Security

The political stability of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region is crucial for the security of neighboring countries and the world at large. Recently, the region has been troubled by political turmoil, posing serious risks to regional security. Safeguarding the political stability of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait area is essential for the security of global trade and energy transportation.

Moreover, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region is strategically located at a key point of the Belt and Road Initiative, making it a focal point of competition among major powers, such as US, China, Japan, and Europe. In this context, the geopolitical importance of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait continues to grow. Countries are vying for influence in the region through political, economic, and military means.

As for the maritime security, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region faces a significant threat from piracy, which severely endangers the security of global trade and energy transportation. In recent years, Somalia-based pirates have targeted passing vessels, causing substantial losses. Combating piracy and ensuring maritime security is a challenge that requires international cooperation.

The marine environmental protection in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region is becoming increasingly prominent and should not be disregarded. Overfishing, marine pollution, and ecological destruction are serious issues that threaten the region’s marine ecosystems and fishery resources. Strengthening marine environmental protection is essential for maintaining the ecological balance and sustainable development of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait area.

A Vital Channel for the Trade of Goods and Energy

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait serves as a vital maritime channel connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe, with a significant portion of global trade passing through its waters each year. According to World Bank data, approximately 30% of oil and 40% of dry goods are transported via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, making the Bab el-Mandeb Strait a crucial route for these shipments.

Also, the port cities in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region, such as Djibouti, Somalia, and Yemen, act as trade hubs. These cities facilitate trade between countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe, contributing to the global economy’s growth.

Nevertheless, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a crucial route for African energy exports. The region boasts rich oil and natural gas resources, which are transported to Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world through this strait. As African energy exports continue to increase, the strategic importance of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait becomes more pronounced.

As the world’s largest energy consumer, China’s demand for oil and natural gas is immense. The African countries in the el-Mandeb Strait region, such as Sudan, Eritrea, and Yemen, are significant suppliers of China’s energy imports. Ensuring the security and stability of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is of great importance to China’s energy supply security.

Djibouti — The Core of the Strait Geopolitics

Djibouti is at the heart of the geopolitics in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region. Also, the presence of Djibouti makes it possible for various countries to conduct peacekeeping operations in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. On June 2008, at the invitation of the Somali TFG, the United Nations adopted Resolution 1816 granting the countries concerned to enhance cooperation in entering Somali territorial waters to combat piracy. Due to the political stability within its territory and its natural harbors, Djibouti becomes an important place for UN member states to conduct peacekeeping operations in the region. In addition to France and the United States, which have previously established naval bases, Japan, China, Germany, Italy, Spain and Saudi Arabia have all established military bases or facilities in Djibouti to carry out peacekeeping activities (Ana Aguilera Raga, 2020). The presence of various global actors in Djibouti has contributed to the relative restraint of other actors in the region. Moreover, the overall instability in the Strait region has led to more cooperation than competition among these countries.

Through the provision of port services, the collection of rents, and the attraction of investment, the government of Djibouti has promoted the development of its domestic infrastructure and economic growth, which further enhances its geopolitical value in the Strait region. In 2022, Djibouti ranked 1st in Africa and 26th in the world in the Container Port Performance Index of the Djibouti Port (World Bank, 2023). It is expected that Djibouti will remain the key to maintaining geopolitical stability in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait for a considerable period of time.

China’s Strategic Interests and Countermeasures in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait Region

Because of its high demand of energy supplies, for China, ensuring the security and stability of the region is fundamental. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region is a key point in the Belt and Road Initiative. Since, China’s interests in this region are increasing, by strengthening friendly cooperation with the countries in the strait, it can promote the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative and enhance China’s influence on the international stage.

To combat the threat of piracy in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region, China should actively participate in international maritime security cooperation and jointly combat piracy to maintain maritime security. And through substantial involvement, China should actively participate in regional affairs in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region, respecting the sovereignty and independence of the neighboring countries. Through diplomatic, economic, and military cooperation, China can jointly address non-traditional security threats such as terrorism and extremism, contributing to regional peace and prosperity.


As a vital maritime channel connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe, the strategic importance of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is also self-evident. Overall, its geopolitical importance is determined by the significant shipping value of the Suez Canal, in the context of global economic integration and increasing energy demand. However, the instability of the region and the combination of other destabilizing factors have led to a prolonged period of disorder in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The stability within its territory and the existence of a natural port, from which various states base their peacekeeping operations, have made Djibouti, and will continue to make it, a strategic location that avoids the utilization of the value of Bab al-Mandeb Strait in a malicious manner.

At the same time, with regards to Chinese interests, China should pay attention to the changes in the regional security situation, ensure the security of energy supply, and make positive contributions to maintaining global trade and maritime security.

Also, in the face of the new situation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, all countries need to strengthen cooperation to ensure security and stability in the region in order to maintain global economic development and the balance of the geopolitical order.

In summary, the geopolitical importance of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait makes it a focus of attention for countries around the world. As a major developing country, China should continue to adhere to the concept of peaceful development and win-win cooperation, play a constructive role in promoting peace and prosperity in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait region, strengthen its comprehensive strength to enhance China’s international influence and contribute to the maintenance of China’s national interests and global peace and development.

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About the author:

Jun Qiao, Yitong Li and Mingxuan Huang

Mrs. Jun Qiao is student at the Anhui University, China; Yitong Li is student at the Hainan University, China and Mr. Mingxuan Huang is student at the Yunnan University, China. They are interns at MEPEI.

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