• May 21, 2024

CENTCOM chief describes Middle East “race” against China, Iran threat 2023

General Michael Erik Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the United States is in a ‘race’ against China to more integrate militarily with its allies in the Middle East, while also highlighting the escalating danger from Iran.

Thursday’s hearing is the second day in a row that senators and administration officials have focused on the threat of rising Chinese influence in the Middle East, reflecting rising concern on Capitol Hill and in the administration about the issue in the wake of China’s mediation of a diplomatic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It further emphasized that this problem is accompanied by Iran’s threats, which continue to expand in breadth and complexity.

“The People’s Republic of China has decided to engage in competition in the area. Kurilla stated that the PRC is vigorously increasing its diplomatic, informational, military, and economic outreach throughout the area. We are in a race to integrate with our partners before China penetrates the region completely.

He stated that China’s military sales to the area have increased by 80 percent over the past decade, while U.S. military sales have declined by 30 percent, and that Beijing is now beginning to exercise its diplomatic muscles.

These Chinese advances pose a threat to the Abraham Accords-driven plans for regional air- and missile-defense integration, according to Kurilla, who noted that Chinese technology is incompatible with that of the U.S. and its Western allies and, if integrated, could pose security risks to U.S. technology.

Kurilla ascribed China’s military advancements in part to the lengthy approval procedure for U.S. overseas military sales, which involves many executive agencies, Congress, and private business. According to him, current U.S. procedures are too slow to suit the demands of U.S. partners, which drives partners toward China.

“What China does is come in, open their whole inventory, provide rapid delivery, have no end-user commitment, and provide financing,” he explained. Our security partners have actual security demands, and we are losing the capacity to supply our equipment so that it can integrate into the region because they can satisfy the need much more quickly.

He asked Congress to seek policy reforms that would expedite the process and stated that the Department of Defense has a team investigating the matter. In addition, he asserted that expanding and strengthening the Abraham Accords will contribute in the resistance against Chinese influence by facilitating expanded military and cyber cooperation and by giving economic advantages to member nations, so enhancing stability.

When asked if the United States is in risk of losing its role as the preferred security partner in the CENTCOM region, which encompasses the whole Middle East, Kurilla said, “China is making advances” while noting that U.S. equipment is still favored.

General Michael Langley, who commands the United States Africa Command and spoke beside Kurilla, stated that China presents comparable concerns in his region.

Kurilla stated that U.S.-Saudi military connections were “extremely robust” despite the resumption of ties between Riyadh and Iran, but he deemed it “worrisome” because China acted as a mediator for this agreement.

“The negotiations concerned the establishment of diplomatic relations. This is not a coalition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, he stated. In the past, they maintained diplomatic connections while being at war with one another.

He described the reconciliation as the product of three years of talks, which China began to mediate in the “final few months.”

Kurilla questioned the agreement’s long-term durability.

“Agreement is not implementation,” he continued, stressing that the U.S. had intercepted five large weapons shipments from Iran to Yemen over the past 90 days, intended for use in operations against Saudi Arabia.

Kurilla, along with Military Services Chair Jack Reed (D-RI) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS), characterized Iran as an additional CENTCOM high priority and concern.

Kurilla described Iran’s “rapid advancements in military capabilities,” stating that the Islamic Republic is “exponentially more competent than it was just five years ago.” In the past two years, he continued, hostile actions and nuclear enrichment capabilities have escalated. Even in the last 90 days, he added, the United States has witnessed some of the greatest rates of Iranian arms supplies to Yemen, as well as an uptick in attacks against American soldiers in Iraq and Syria.

The commander of CENTCOM expressed alarm over Russian-Iranian collaboration since Iran’s transfer of drones to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine has helped Tehran upgrade its own drones, while Moscow has agreed to deliver Iran modern SU-35 fighter planes.

Kurilla stated that air- and missile-defense integration and sustained funding of U.S. partners are essential to addressing these threats, adding that “it will require more than a military response” to push back against Iran.

Israel’s inclusion into CENTCOM, which has permitted for large-scale training exercises, was highlighted by the general as a positive development in his area of responsibility. In addition, he stated that the establishment of the U.S.-Israel Operational Technology Working Group in 2021 had resulted in significant advances in air-defense technology.

Yet, Kurilla recognized that the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations is the most precarious in decades, stating that the “tinder” for a war is there and “we do not know what it would take to ignite a broader confrontation in the West Bank.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) questioned Kurilla if recent Israeli demonstrations against judicial reform proposals, which have included reservists refusing to engage in training, may have an influence on Israel’s military preparedness.

Kurilla stated that he most recently met with IDF Chief of General Staff Herzi Halevi on Wednesday morning. Halevi informed Kurilla that he is striving to “guarantee that his military stays out of the political discourse.” He refused to answer a question on the immediate impact of the proposed judicial changes.

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