A senior USAF official has raised concerns over China’s aspirations in the Middle East, as Washington seeks to maintain its position as a leading provider of security and trade to countries in the region.

Lt Gen Alex Grynkewich, commander, Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central), a component of US Central Command (CENTCOM) has claimed that China is a threat in the Middle East, as US forces in the region maintain a presence to keep collaborations with countries in the area from Beijing’s ambitions. 

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Grynkewich claimed: “The Chinese presence in the region is primarily an economic presence, driven by the Belt and Road initiative, and as the Chinese look to stitch the world together in a new rules-based order that is in their favour as opposed to ours. What I would say is, their interests are bringing countries over to their side.” 

“When they buy Chinese equipment, when they have Chinese infrastructure projects, it’s a transactional relationship and its one that will last for the duration of that transaction, and that’s about it, and so I think we have a qualitative advantage if you will against the Chinese in terms of how we approach our partners with the respect that we treat them”.

Lt Gen Alex Grynkewich

During the meeting on 16 February, Grynkewich tried to assert that US relationships and collaborations with nations in the Middle East are long-term and beneficial for both parties, where they would share data, intelligence, and practice drills. This is instead of the “transactional” relationship Grynkewich claims China has with countries in the Middle East.

Although China doesn’t have direct involvement in having military infrastructures in the region, GlobalData’s “China’s Defense Market, Military Doctrine and Strategy, 2022-2027” reports that in 2017, China opened its first overseas base in the East African coastal nation Djibouti to resupply navy ships taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia. 

Abhijit Apsingikar, aerospace, defence, and security analyst at GlobalData, offers his view: “Although China has indeed been trying to secure a military base in the Middle East for a while, most of the Middle East countries continue to remain firmly within the US-led western sphere of influence and are unlikely to allow a Chinese base in the Middle East.

“Since such a measure is likely to directly run foul of the US. Middle Eastern countries such as Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait are unlikely to open their doors for a Chinese military base.”

Grynkewich’s comments suggest the US is cautious of China’s activities in the face of its historical dominance in the arms supply of Middle Eastern countries. China is the largest exporter of arms to countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Morocco, countries that are either on the region’s periphery or have strong ties with the area. 

Sourced: GlobalData Intelligence

China has made many advances in weapon manufacturing; however, the country is way behind the US in terms of military capability. Two of the most high-end indigenously produced military aircraft—J-10 multirole aircraft and JH-7 fighter bombers—were under development for nearly two decades.

State-owned companies such as China Aviation Industry Corporation, China North Industries Group Corporation, China State Shipbuilding Corporation and China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation contribute to the majority of exports from China, including JF-17 Thunder/FC-1 combat aircraft, CH-3 UAVs and C-802 anti-ship missiles. 

According to GlobalData’s “Saudi Arabia’s Defence Market 2022-2027” report, the US was the primary weapons system supplier to the Middle East’s largest nation, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia imported F-15 fighter aircraft from the US, and the plane was transferred along with cruise missiles and other guided munitions.

For now, it seems like it would be almost impossible for China to outmuscle or provide the quality and consistency of weaponry and military hardware that the US does in this market. In late 2021, the US approved a $650m sale of AIM-120C AMRAAM missile sales to Saudi Arabia

A variety of other countries in the Middle East rely on the US for arms imports as regional tensions in the Middle East continue to propel the arms imports of countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. These include products such as THAAD missile defence systems

Apsingikar concludes: “China is unlikely to make any provocative moves in the region as such a move would pit them in direct conflict against the US. Presently China does have some military presence in Gwadar in Baluchistan, Pakistan and Djibouti to secure its strategic interests, but they are relatively far off from directly challenging the US strategic interests in the region.”