U.S. weapons sales to Middle Eastern countries help keep them from “turning to China,” the top commander of U.S. forces in the region said.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, acknowledged on Wednesday that the United States must “shift resources” from Middle Eastern conflicts to confront China.
But he claimed that Central Command’s area of responsibility, which covers the Middle East and Central Asia, would also be a stage for great power competition.
“Competition between global powers does not occur in neatly designated areas,” he said at an event hosted by the Middle East Institute. “You don't have the luxury of focusing on only one theater.”
McKenzie said that U.S. weapons sales would “assure our partners in the region that we're going to be around, that we're going to be dependable partners.”
“We don't want them turning to Russia, don't want them turning to China to buy those systems," he said. "We will also have a measure of control over how those systems are used."
The United States sent a little over half of its arms exports to the Middle East over the past five years, and a full 25% of U.S. arms exports in this period went to Saudi Arabia, according to data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
U.S. arms exports increased by 23% worldwide from the previous five-year period, but the global market share of U.S. arms fell slightly as Russia, Britain, Italy, Ukraine, and Sweden increased their exports.
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia are particularly controversial in American politics as the Saudi-led coalition fights a brutal war in Yemen.
The Trump administration is under fire for circumventing Congress to sell $8 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia and two other Middle Eastern monarchies last year.
Lawmakers are now investigating the State Department for allegedly quashing an investigation into the deal.
McKenzie argued that U.S. arms sales are not just about weapons systems, but also “the assurance of the United States that stands behind those systems.”
He said that China is now moving into the region “principally economically, to establish a beachhead, and other things will follow over time.”
“China gets fifty percent of their oil through the Straits of Hormuz,” McKenzie said, referring to a body of water between Iran and Oman. “Additionally, there are vast mineral and other deposits in the theater that China would certainly like to have access to, and they would prefer to do it under somebody else’s security auspices, but who knows what their design will be in the long term?”
But the general acknowledged that the U.S. military has “optimized” for Middle Eastern conflicts “at the cost of certain other things.”
“Meanwhile, we were being studied by China and Russia,” he continued. “They gained a march on us in studying our strengths and weaknesses and preparing for a long-term competition.”
Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @matthew_petti.