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General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, says that while the US considers itself in competition with China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe, there is also economic, military and economic rivalry in the Middle East. Photo: Getty Images/AFP

Crises allowed China and Russia to pursue Middle East power and influence, warns US general

  • General Kenneth McKenzie says America faced diplomatic, military and economic competition in the volatile region after perceived decrease in US engagement
  • China’s interests are mainly economic, with over half its crude oil imported from the region, Middle East Institute told
The head of the US military’s Central Command warned that the United States faced greater competition in the Middle East from both China and Russia, adding another layer of geopolitical tension to the already volatile region.

In an address at the Middle East Institute this week, General Kenneth McKenzie said Beijing and Moscow had taken advantage of factors such as a perceived decrease in US engagement in the Middle East under the former US administration to raise their influence in the region over the past year.

“The United States faces increasing competition in the region from Russia and China both vying for power and influence through a combination of diplomatic, military and economic means,” he said during the virtual appearance on Monday.

“In 2020, Russia and China exploited an ongoing regional crisis; financial infrastructure needs; perception of declining US engagement; and opportunities created by Covid-19 to advance their objectives across the Middle East and central and southern Asian nations to gain or strengthen footholds in the region.”

China’s top diplomat in US accuses Washington of creating global ‘instability’

The cautionary remarks come weeks into US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has signalled it will take a tougher line on policies towards both Iran and China. Over the weekend, Biden said his administration was ready for “extreme competition” with China and said the US would not lift its sanctions on Iran to bring Tehran back to the nuclear deal that the US withdrew from in 2018.

McKenzie said that while the US had said it was engaged in competition with China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe, this had also played out in the Middle East, including with Russia maintaining a military presence in Syria in its bid to counter US influence. For China, the interests were mainly economic, with Beijing importing around half of its crude oil from the region, he said.

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“China uses its Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to expand Chinese influence and presence within the [region],” he said. “Russia and China leverage their proximity to the region, historical relations and a perceived decline in US engagement to establish and strengthen opportunistic relationships.”

McKenzie said he expected Beijing to build its defence cooperation in the region in the coming year through arms sales and exercises, and to deepen trade ties, “prioritising access to energy resources”.

He argued that the US needed to strengthen relationships with partners and allies to compete with China and Russia, including on border security measures, counterterrorism, defence and even on the issue of development help.

“In the near term, the greatest source of stability in the Middle East is the resolve of our partner nations there to work hand in hand with the United States and an international coalition of law-abiding nations in defence of the principles embodied in the UN Charter,” he said.

“There is a military component to this, as it demonstrates to malign actors that there are consequences for undermining these principles. And as I talk to you today, I don’t doubt that our adversaries have any doubt about that.”

Why is China looking beyond Africa for oil supplies?

Analysts have said that the US, which under former president Donald Trump established diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, has sought to push back on Beijing’s influence and its belt and road interests.

As China has greatly increased its foothold in the Middle East in recent years, it has become the largest trading partner for many countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Iran. China has also become heavily dependent on oil resources in the region to meet its vast energy demands, with Saudi Arabia and Iraq among the country’s top crude oil suppliers.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing, Moscow taking advantage in Mideast, US commander warns