Barbara Leaf says US maintains 'clear advantage' over China in Middle East

'I would not want to see China pick up the role that we have had for almost 80 years in securing sea lanes and the flow commerce energy,' senior official tells Congress

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America's long security, defence and commerce history in the Middle East gives it a “clear advantage” over China, whose economic influence is on the rise in the region, a senior US official said on Thursday.

Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the Senate that America’s eight-decade history in safeguarding the region gave it an edge over Beijing — and that it should be maintained.

“For decades, we have worked to prevent conflicts and terrorism from threatening the security and stability of the United States and that of our partners and allies, to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to ensure the security of our closest partners, including an ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” Ms Leaf said.

As Washington assesses China’s “influence today in the Middle East and North Africa, in these areas that matter most to our national security, we retain a clear advantage that [Beijing] is unable to challenge”, she added.

Ms Leaf said the region remains critical for US national security, arguing that its “sea lanes are essential to a secure global supply chain and commerce” and that its energy resources remain vital for market stability and the global economy.

“I would not want to see China pick up the role that we have had for almost 80 years in securing sea lanes and the flow commerce energy,” she said.

“It’s a big job. It's a big responsibility.”

She noted, however, the exponential rise of China’s economic interests and role in the region. Ms Leaf said China's trade activity had risen from $15.2 billion in 2000 to $284.3bn in 2021.

“That dramatic jump was driven in no small part by energy — mainly oil and natural gas — accounting for 46 per cent of the total trade today,” she said.

The US trade with the Middle East during that same 20-year period rose from $63.4bn to $98.4bn.

Ms Leaf pointed to Beijing’s close relationship with Tehran and said Chinese-made drones are being supplied to Iranian proxies attacking Gulf countries.

She argued this is a liability for China's security ties with Arab countries.

“It is an irony. I'm the first to say that those UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] to these [Iranian] proxies are Chinese,” Ms Leaf said.

“They're not provided by the state, but the state does not attempt to curtail that flow.”

Ms Leaf warned, however, of the risk Arab states could face in increasing defence relations with China.

Asked about the possibility of Beijing establishing military bases in the region, the senior US official made it clear this would be a red line for Washington.

“This is a kind of issue where we're very clear with our partners: economic relationships are one thing, buying defence articles are another thing, but they will quickly run up against the [US] bilateral defence relationship itself,” she said.

As to China’s 25-year strategic defence agreement with Iran, Ms Leaf said it was not surprising but required more work from Washington to counter its impact.

“The regime in Tehran is itself so supremely isolated and not just because of our sanctions — it’s isolated because of its own actions, its own predatory destructive behaviour within [the country] as well as the larger region,” she said.

Ms Leaf stated that President Joe Biden’s visit to the region last month was aimed at laying the groundwork to counter China's influence and do “the hard diplomatic work, the defence work, the security co-operation, intelligence co-operation [work] with all of those neighbours, but not just the Gulf countries”.

On Iraq and the current stalemate over the formation of a new government, Ms Leaf said that the administration is “leveraging relationships and providing good counsel and above all, counselling these blocks” without becoming involved in the political infighting.

She added that she is likely visit to the country in September.

Updated: August 04, 2022, 4:27 PM
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