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U.S. Commander: China Cozying Up to Iran, Enhancing Military Posture in Middle East

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) take part in a welcoming ceremony on January 23, 2016 in the capital Tehran.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC — China is seeking to enhance its military posture in the Middle East, where Beijing is pursuing deeper cooperation with state sponsor of terror Iran, the chief of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) cautioned lawmakers Tuesday.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Gen. Joseph Votel unveiled CENTCOM’s 2018 posture statement, a summary of the combatant command’s role, mission, operations, and budget presented to Congress each year.

He noted that the lifting of sanctions under former President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, has allowed China to enhance its relationship with Iran, which the general identified as the top long-term threat in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, Votel acknowledged, “While China will continue to develop its relationships with nations in the Middle East, Beijing will likely maintain its stance of avoiding a major role in ongoing conflicts.”

Gen. Votel explained:

Both China and Russia seek to fill in perceived gaps in U.S. interest by increasing defense cooperation and sales of their equipment to our regional partners. They both are also cultivating multidimensional ties to Iran. The lifting of U.N. sanctions under the joint comprehensive plan of action opened the path for Iran to resume membership application to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The SCO organization refers to a Eurasian political, economic, and military coalition founded in Shanghai back in 2001 by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Iran, designated by the United States as the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism, is listed by the organization as “observer state.”

Gen. Votel testified:

An increasingly assertive China is testing Russia’s dominance in the economic and security arenas of Central Asia but also posing challenges to U.S. influence. China seeks to capitalize on regional concerns over what it perceives as waning U.S. influence and support. Toward this end, Beijing is building and strengthening trade, infrastructure, defense, and political relationships across the Middle East, Central and South Asia.

Gen. Votel is charged with U.S. military activity in the Middle East, Egypt, and the Afghanistan region.

The top general’s warnings about China’s growing relationship with Iran come soon after the U.S. military warned China’s “impressive military buildup” may soon enable the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to challenge America’s military dominance in the Indo-Pacific region “across almost all domains.”

Gen. Votel identified Iran as a significant menace to regional stability and U.S. interests in the Middle East, telling lawmakers the American military is seeking to “neutralize, counterbalance and shape the destabilizing impact that Iran has across the region.”

“Make no mistake, while we continue to confront the scourge of terrorism, Iran’s malign activities across the region pose the long-term threat to stability in this part of the world,” warned the top U.S. general during the hearing Tuesday, adding in his written testimony that China is trying to amplify its relationship with Tehran.

Votel testified:

China also seeks to increase its economic and diplomatic cooperation with Iran. The lifting of UN sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) opened the path for Iran to resume membership application to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian political, economic, and security organization.

Gen. Votel acknowledges that China’s ambitious multi-trillion dollar One Belt One Road (OBOR) plan, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has allowed Beijing to increase its ties Tehran.
Votel told lawmakers:

China is pursuing a long-term, steady economic growth in the region through its “One Belt, One Road” policy, but it is also improving its military posture by connecting ports such as Gwadar in Pakistan with its first overseas military base in Djibouti, adjacent to the critical Bab-el-Mandeb [strait between the Middle East and Africa].

While Beijing claims both locations support peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, the new military base and port bolsters China’s force projection into the region.

China’s BRI is expected to be a massive network of land and sea links connecting Xinjiang, China’s biggest province, to more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and likely Latin America, along one route.

Gen. Votel also noted that China views its ties to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a political and economic coalition of six Middle Eastern countries, primarily led by Saudi Arabia, as essential for expanding its influence in the region, a move that threatens U.S. interests.

The commander testified:

China considers its relationship with the GCC states critical for its current economic needs. The Gulf States provide approximately one-third of China’s oil, and Qatar is its single largest supplier of natural gas. Like Russia, China has sought to arbitrate some conflicts in the region, offering to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Gen. Votel’s warnings about China’s growing influence in the Middle East comes soon after the U.S. military warned that Beijing’s decision to expand its BRI project to Latin America might create security vulnerabilities for the United States by allowing Beijing to expand its influence over the region.

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