Great power projection in the Middle East: The China-Russia relationship as a force multiplier
Russia and China are often mischaracterized as allies. There is a perception that their revisionist preferences for international order align, and that their desires for a less US-centered international order mean they are collaborating toward this end. The challenge they pose to the United States has been acknowledged by the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, and “great power competition”’ (GPC) or “strategic competition” has replaced counterterrorism at the center of US strategy. The Biden administration’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategy Guidance states that “we face . . . growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states.” It describes China as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system,” and Russia as “determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage.” The Pentagon’s “2+3” framework for GPC has China and Russia as the two primary threats, and North Korea, Iran, and terrorism as the three secondary threats, reinforcing a two-tiered system that implies that “China and Russia are similar threats while the others are lower in priority.” In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), their behavior-tandem vetoes on Syria at the United Nations, mutual anger about Libya, arms exports to traditional US allies, and cooperating with Iran despite multilateral sanctions5—feeds into the perception that they have a coordinated agenda to push out the United States, or at least to challenge its preponderance there. In a February 2021 speech by General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command overseeing MENA and Central Asia, he noted that “the United States faces increasing competition in the region from Russia and China, both vying for power and influence through a combination of diplomatic, military, and economic means. This adds another layer of tension and instability to an already complex and challenging region.” This report provides a comparative analysis of the approaches that China and Russia have adopted to develop their regional presence in MENA across four realms of influence: political, economic, security, and public diplomacy.
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