After Houthi rebels hijacked a car freighter in the Red Sea and trafficked it to Yemen, concerns are growing about ongoing difficulties on one of the world's most important trade routes. After all, a large part of the movement of goods between Asia and Europe first passes through the Red Sea and then the Suez Canal, which runs through Egypt into the Mediterranean. The Yemeni rebels, who are financed by Iran, have threatened to attack any ships that they believe have a connection to Israel in order to support their "brothers in Gaza".

Tim Kanning

Correspondent for economics and politics in Japan based in Tokyo.

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Japan's trade minister warned of supply chain disruptions. "Many goods, including cars, are transported on this route, which connects Europe and Japan through the Suez Canal," Commerce Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said at a press conference in Tokyo.

Among other things, Japan gets a large part of its energy imports from the Middle East. Nishimura said, however, that the oil and liquefied natural gas carriers that supplied the country did not often pass through the waters now affected. Still, ongoing issues along the route could hit Japan's economy hard.

Gas price rises due to higher risks

However, the fact that concerns about an escalation of the Middle East conflict do not only affect the country in the Far East is evident in the European gas market, among other things. There, prices for futures contracts rose by 6.9 percent on Monday. Traders mainly pointed to the increased risks for trade in the region.

The hijacked ship, named "Galaxy Leader", is operated by the Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen (NYK), sails under the flag of the Bahamas, but belongs to the company "Galaxy Maritime Ltd.", registered on the British Isle of Man, which is said to be backed by an Israeli businessman.

Attack from the air

The British company has now announced that the cargo ship "Galaxy Leader" was "illegally boarded by military personnel by helicopter" on November 19 and is now anchored in the port of Hodeidah in Yemen. The Houthi rebels posted a video on the Internet showing a helicopter dropping armed men on a cargo ship – apparently the "Galaxy Leader" – apparently taking control of the ship and its crew.

The owner "Galaxy Maritime" stated that there has been no communication with the ship since the raid. "The owners and operators consider the seizure of this ship to be a gross violation of freedom of passage for the world fleet and a serious threat to international trade." Beyond that, however, the shipping company does not want to comment on the political or geopolitical situation.

U.S. calls for immediate release

In the meantime, the United States has also commented on the incident. A spokesman for the State Department in Washington condemned the kidnapping as a gross violation of international law. "We call for the immediate release of the ship and its crew and will consult with our allies and partners at the United Nations on appropriate next steps."

According to initial information from Israel, the ship was on its way empty from Turkey to India when it was attacked. A report in the Japanese business newspaper "Nikkei" on Tuesday said that the ship was loaded with cars. There are said to be 25 sailors of different nationalities on board, but no Israelis. NYK said it had formed a response team to gather intelligence and ensure the safety of the crew.

The Japanese government announced that it would mediate in the release of the cargo ship. Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said Tokyo was in contact with both Israel and the rebels. At the same time, however, she called for the assistance of Arab states, with which Japan usually has good trade relations. "In addition to making direct contact with the Houthi rebels, we also urge Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and other concerned countries to urge the Houthi rebels to release the ship and crew members as soon as possible," Kamikawa said.