WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Army Central said indirect competition with China and Russia in the Middle East will shape future conflicts, and the United States must respond.

The comments follow the release of U.S. President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance in March, which emphasized the challenges of strategic competition with Russia and China to American interests. But that strategic competition isn’t limited to events in those countries, said Lt. Gen. Ronald Clark, who spoke at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference Oct. 12. It also includes nonmilitary events taking place across the Middle East.

The command’s area of responsibility is vast. It includes 21 countries that make up more than 4 million square miles and are home to 550 million people in 22 ethnic groups speaking 20 different languages, Clark said.

Importantly for American interests, he added, it’s also home to vast oil reserves. Nearly 30 percent of the petroleum and crude oil products from around the world flow through three chokepoints that fall under the command’s purview. Clark pointed to when the supercargo ship Ever Given recently clogged up the Suez Canal for days as an example of the importance of those chokepoints. That incident disrupted 12 percent of global trade with an estimated cost of $9 billion. Clark’s command is responsible for ensuring access to the global commons through Middle East chokepoints, he explained.

The major challenges to the command’s operations are China, Russia, Iran and “violent extremist organizations around the world,” he said. But the commander primarily cited Russia and China, which he said are making moves in the Middle East to “set conditions for future operations.”

Both nations blur the lines between competition, crisis and conflict, he added.

For example, China engages in unrestricted warfare, which consciously expands the battlefield from traditional domains such as land, air and sea to social spaces, politics, culture and economics. An important piece of that in the Middle East is the Belt and Road Initiative, which consists of a number of economic investments by the Chinese government and Chinese-owned companies in foreign countries.

“The Belt and Road Initiative touches virtually every country in [the command’s area of responsibility],” said Clark, pointing to a $300 billion investment by a Chinese-owned company into the port of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, China continues to import massive amounts of oil from the Middle East, helping Iran build a new export facility that will allow it to continue pumping oil past the Strait of Hormuz. “Their interests there are deep and enduring,” Clark said.

Meanwhile, Russia is practicing its own form of hybrid warfare using nonmilitary means to create an operational environment where a smaller military force can come in and achieve its objective, Clark said. For example, a 2017 deal allowed Russia to expand the Port of Tartus in Syria, and it can now hold up to 12 nuclear-powered ships or submarines, he added.

“That now allows the Russians — if they want to — to project power into the Mediterranean and into Eastern Europe,” he said.

While it falls short of actual conflict, Clark said these actions are a part of strategic competition and will shape future conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.

“Events in one theater will spill over — undoubtedly — to another,” he said. “Bottom line: All of our competitors are setting conditions in the [command’s area of responsibility] right now that we need to respond to.”

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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