As the Pentagon is shifting its focus to confront Russia and China, the top US commander in the Middle East is arguing that the region is crucial to this so-called “great power competition” the military is now prioritizing.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, said if the US pulls out of the Middle East, China and Russia will expand their influence, a common talking point among hawks who favor intervention in the region.
“The Middle East writ broadly is an area of intense competition between the great powers. And I think that as we adjust our posture in the region, Russia and China will be looking very closely to see if a vacuum opens that they can exploit,” McKenzie told reporters on Sunday.
While McKenzie favors continued US engagement in the Middle East, he also agrees that China is the top “pacing threat” facing the US military, which is the official line coming out of the Pentagon. “I agree completely that China needs to be the pacing threat we orient on,” he said. “At the same time, we are a global power and we need to have a global outlook. And that means that you have the ability to consider the globe as a whole.”
Mckenzie’s claimed that Moscow wants to sell more air defense systems in the region and that Beijing has a “long-term” goal of establishing military bases in the Middle East. Both of these goals would be more achievable if the US left, he said.
China currently has one overseas military base in Djibouti, which is located next to a US base and was established for anti-piracy operations. Despite US claims, there’s no indication that China wants to expand its military presence in the region, as Beijing’s preferred way to spread influence is through infrastructure investments and trade.
When it comes to Russian arms sales, that concern rings hollow coming from the US. For decades, US weapons have flooded the region, fueling conflict after conflict. Today, the US’s top allies in the region — Saudi Arabia and Israel — are constantly bombing their neighbors with US weapons.
McKenzie said he met with Saudi leaders over the weekend who were “very concerned” about the US’s pivot towards Asia and the Pentagon’s global posture review. Ultimately, McKenzie said he wasn’t fearful that the US would completely disengage from the region and said the US could maintain influence by supporting proxies and keeping missile systems in the Arabian Peninsula.