Russia and China in 2020 exploited an ongoing regional crisis, perception of declining U.S. 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.
United States Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie said in an address to the Middle East Institute yesterday that Russia and China are vying for power and influence through all aspects of national power in the region. This is on top of the risks posed by Iran and violent extremist groups.
Russia seeks to undermine and disrupt U.S. influence to reassert its own identity as a global power, the general said. Russia also has economic reasons for moves in the Middle East including destabilizing arms sales. Russia is also looking to establish permanent bases in Syria and Sudan.
Chinese 'Belt and Road'
China is dependent on the region for half of its crude oil. China continues to cultivate trade relationships, economic investment, and comprehensive partnerships among regional states. "China uses its 'Belt and Road' initiative and the China-Pakistan economic corridor to expand Chinese influence and presence within the region," McKenzie said.
Both Russia and China leverage their proximity to the region, historical relations, and a perceived decline in U.S. engagement to establish and strengthen opportunistic relationships, he said.
Coordinated U.S. interagency efforts, strong allies, and partner relationships are key in this phase of great power competition. "Opportunities to bolster partnerships and compete with Russia and China in the region include border security measures, counter-narcotics efforts, counterterrorism, defense institution building, and even development assistance," he said. "These low-cost and often overlooked programs possessed outsized impact in terms of building relationships and assuring key partners."
But Iran remains the main problem for the command, McKenzie said. "For more than 40 years, the Iranian regime has funded and aggressively supported terrorism and terrorist organizations and defied international norms by conducting malign activities, which destabilize — not only the region — but global security and commerce, as well," he flatly stated.
McKenzie said Iran sponsors proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria and uses Iraq as a proxy battleground against the United States. "Iran's actions also contribute to the instability seen in Syria and Yemen, two regional conflicts that have resulted in millions of refugees, famine, and outbreaks of diseases."
He said he expects China will continue to strengthen defense cooperation throughout the region with arms sales, exercises, and the use of multilateral organizations to establish and strengthen trade relationships across the Middle East while prioritizing access to energy resources.
McKenzie also said the U.S. presence in the region has brought about a period of contested deterrence with Iran. "That presence sends a series of clear and unambiguous signals of our capabilities and will to defend partners and U.S. national interests, a signal which has been clearly received by the Iranian regime," he said. "In addition to visible presence, CENTCOM demonstrates U.S. capability and will [continue that] by enhancing a resilient and responsive force posture; dynamically moving forces in and out of the region, as needed; and building cohesive and dominant partnerships with regional and coalition forces."
Arab states recognizing Israel
McKenzie also talked about Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan joining Egypt and Jordan in recognizing Israel.
"The easing of tensions between Israel and other Arab countries provides us with a strategic opportunity to align additional partners against shared threats to stability in the region," he said. "Now, I fully understand there are fundamentally political issues that remain to be worked out between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors, and that process will take its course. But it's always been my observation that since you can't choose your neighbors, you have to find a way to get along with the ones that you do have."