Nov 18, 2022 - World

Top Pentagon official warns Middle East partners to limit China ties

Colin Kahl testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee in Oct. 2021. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

The Pentagon’s top policy official warned America's partners in the Middle East on Friday that cooperating too closely with Beijing on security issues could damage their cooperation with Washington.

Why it matters: The remarks by Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain signaled the administration's concerns about growing Chinese influence in the Gulf and the broader Middle East.

What he's saying: Kahl said the Biden administration isn't demanding that countries in the region have no relations with China, but warned that if security cooperation with China "crosses a certain threshold... it creates security threats for us."

  • As examples, he said Chinese involvement in communication networks can create cyber vulnerabilities for the U.S., while Chinese participation in some infrastructure projects can generate intelligence risks.
  • Kahl also mentioned that China's presence in certain countries in the region can allow them to conduct surveillance on U.S. forces in a way that presents a threat to U.S. national security.
  • “So raising the ceiling too much with Beijing will lower the ceiling with the U.S. — not for punitive reasons but because of our interests," Kahl said.

Flashback: Kahl's remarks echoed warnings raised during the Trump administration by officials including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though the rhetoric then was sometimes less diplomatic.

State of play: The Biden administration has pressed several countries in the region to curb their relations with China.

  • The U.S. and Israel launched a high-level technology dialogue this year partially in response to the Biden administration's concerns about Chinese investments in Israel's tech sector.
  • Meanwhile the UAE halted construction on a Chinese facility in the country last year after the U.S. said Beijing intended to use it for military purposes — an issue which sparked tensions between Abu Dhabi and Washington.

The big picture: Kahl tried to counter the perception in the region that the U.S. is growing less committed to the Middle East, particularly relative to China.

  • “We should be clear-eyed about China’s intentions in the region. They have no interest in mutually beneficial coalitions. They don’t have the intent or the capability to integrate the region's security architecture. Our approach is different. We want to integrate the region while maintaining autonomy of every country," Kahl said.
  • “I understand the temptation to hedge," he continued, but added: "Beijing will not be able to get the region together against Iran. They are allies with Iran. They are not going to deliver security to the region."

The bottom line: "Are we sometimes frustrating to work with? Of course we are. But don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative."

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