As the US military is shifting focus to China and Russia, the top US commander in the Middle East is framing Washington’s presence in the region as a bulwark against Russian and Chinese influence.
On Monday, Gen. Frank McKenzie warned that both China and Russia noticed a reduction in US “engagement” in the Middle East. He mentioned China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project that Washington sees as a threat to its influence. US officials frequently accuse Beijing of using “debt traps” with less developed countries.
“China engaged with nearly every country in the region in 2020, using exploitative debt traps, the Belt and Road Initiative, and medical diplomacy with their vaccine, which has dubious efficacy, to try to expand its influence,” McKenzie told reporters, according to Newsweek.
“Russia is equally disruptive in the region, and their engagements are largely opportunistic and transactional,” the commander added. “Russia seeks ways to position itself as an alternative to the West by offering to mediate regional conflicts, selling arms, offering military expertise and participating in regional and multilateral organizations to advance their interests.”
Considering Washington’s history of fueling conflict after conflict in the region, it’s hard to take McKenzie’s concerns about China and Russia seriously. But his comments demonstrate how US military officials are viewing everything through the lens of competition with Beijing and Moscow.
Ultimately, McKenzie claimed that Iran is still the top threat in the region. “Another priority is deterring Iran’s destabilizing activities, which remains the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East,” he said.
The CENTCOM chief said he believes that despite the shift in the Pentagon’s focus, the US will stay in the Middle East. “I think we’re still going to have a presence here. It might not look exactly like the presence it was five or seven years ago where we get hundreds and thousands of forces here, but I think we’re going to play very smart games to leverage what we have,” he said.