Thank you Will, it’s a pleasure to be at the Atlantic Council today, and thank you Ambassador Varricchio, Ambassador Massolo, and our Italian co-hosts.
Both the United States and Italy share a deep interest in sustained engagement in the Middle East. Italy remains one of our closest partners, and events like this demonstrate our shared commitment to the future of the region. Secretary Pompeo just returned from a very productive visit to Italy, reinforcing our strong partnership. I spent a lot of time with my Italian counterparts a few weeks ago at UNGA, discussing Libya.
The future of the Middle East is at a crossroad. From the liberation of Kuwait to the campaign to defeat of ISIS, the United States has played the leading role in mobilizing the international community to confront security threats in the region.
Much of the media’s attention focuses on the Iranian threat to peace and stability in the Middle East. But I’m here today to talk to you about a challenge that’s most subtle and possibly just as worrying: the incursion of autocratic regimes likes China and Russia into the region.
While we seek partnership to further the security and stability of the region, we are keeping a watchful eye on actions that undermine this goal.
A Positive Vision of Regional Engagement
I’d like to begin with our vision for the region, because I think it stands in sharp contrast to the transactional relationships offered by Russia and China.
The United States has a long track-record of working to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to the Middle East and North Africa. We defend our allies, we are committed to economic growth that provides jobs and prosperity in the United States and around the world, and we value individual freedom and democracy.
As Secretary Pompeo says, the United States is a “Force for good” in the region.
Most significantly, we seek to tackle the region’s problems by working together with our partners – advancing their interests as we advance our own.
For example, we’ve organized and led the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, developed the Warsaw Process on Peace and Security in the Middle East and we’re working to launch the Middle East Strategic Alliance with our partners in the Gulf. Together with other like-minded nations we are the cornerstone of the International Maritime Security Construct to ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf.
All of these cooperative mechanisms help build regional security and stability.
The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS is a testament to what we can accomplish when we work together toward a common goal with local partners. The 76 nations and five international organizations in the Global Coalition are – and should be – enormously proud that the territory ISIS once held is now liberated.
Beyond the military campaign, the real triumph of the Coalition’s effort has been the diplomacy – organizing a worldwide network to stop ISIS’s illicit financing, ending the flow of foreign terrorist fighters into Syria, and discrediting ISIS’s bankrupt ideology and hateful message.
Our contributions also include significant humanitarian assistance. Since 2014 for Iraq alone, the United States has contributed almost $2.5 billion in humanitarian aid to conflict-affected and displaced Iraqis in the region, and $363 million to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS. This has enabled the voluntary return of nearly four million internally displaced people.
Neither Russia nor China has shown a willingness, let alone a capability, to organize a collective effort to defeat a global threat, not to mention help the people harmed by ISIS. And on the assistance front, according to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service, which tracks aid flows, China has provided less than $1 million to Iraq since 2013, and Russia has provided nothing. Instead of helping, Russia and China have sought to exploit openings to increase their own influence at the expense of their partners.
The United States remains the indispensable partner for the majority of countries in the region. While China and Russia play both sides in a range of regional disputes, the United States offers a more hands-on approach in resolving the region’s most intractable problems. Taking a firm and principled position is not always the most popular thing to do – and public opinion sometimes reflects that – but it is a hallmark of responsible global leadership.
Let me be clear – we have no desire to make any country choose between the United States and China or Russia. Countries can have positive relations with the United States, Russia, and China. We simply want to ensure that Russia and China’s influence and activities in the Middle East do not come at the expense of the region’s prosperity, stability, fiscal viability, and long-standing relationship with the United States.
Areas of competing interests
The fact of the matter is that we have a fundamentally different approach from both Russia and China to the region’s most pressing problems.
Let’s start with Iran. Iran represents the dominant challenge facing the region today. We see this in its nuclear escalations, its ballistic missile programs, and its malign regional behavior. Iran is stoking conflict in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and beyond, and bankrolling terrorist groups like Hezbollah.
And earlier this month, Iran staged a brazen attack on Saudi oil facilities. This attack showed Iran’s aggressiveness and fundamental lack of respect for the sovereignty and security of its neighbors. It also threatened international energy markets, temporarily taking five percent of global oil supply off the market.
A sizable percentage of this oil is destined for China. China is Saudi Arabia’s number one customer, and Saudi Arabia is China’s leading oil supplier. Yet where was China, when its primary energy source was threatened?
China was playing both sides, facilitating Iran’s destabilizing activities by propping up the Iranian regime through continued oil purchases. These violations of our sanctions give the Iranian regime crucial cash it needs to further its regional efforts to sow discord and terrorism. China has also sold weapons technology to Iran – technology that can be used to threaten others in the region.
And as Iran has interfered with shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, we have led an effort to assemble the International Maritime Security Construct to protect freedom of navigation in this critical sea lane. We’ve had countries from around the world join us to monitor Iran’s behavior and prevent them from seizing more ships.
Where is Russia? Russia is trying to reincarnate its failed 20-year old security construct which they dusted off to divert attention from more effective solution oriented efforts. It didn’t work 20 years ago, and it won’t help the situation today.
Our presence in the Gulf remains the bedrock of regional security and guarantees freedom of navigation for critical energy resources and other shipping through the strategic straits of Hormuz. This benefits us all, in the region and around the world.
Russia and China are opportunistically seeking to increase their own returns rather than contribute to the broader goal of regional security and stability.
This behavior is not limited to Iran. In Iraq, Iran has repeatedly undermined the central government by providing assistance to armed groups that owe more allegiance to Tehran than to Baghdad.
While China and Russia pursue profit through a heavily mercantilist policy in Iraq, U.S. assistance is providing clean drinking water to citizens in Basrah, jumpstarting Anbar’s economy with $100 million in new projects, and clearing mines so that displaced religious minorities can return to their ancestral homes.
The region’s three ongoing conflicts – in Syria, Yemen, and Libya – continue to claim lives and radiate instability.
It is clear that these conflicts require political solutions and cannot be resolved by military force. The United States will continue to support UN-led peace efforts throughout the region. We are deeply engaged in efforts bring relevant parties into a political process.
Russia, on the other hand, is playing spoiler to advance its own narrow interests as the people of the region suffer.
In Syria, Russia’s behavior has been particularly egregious. Russia intervened to prop up the murderous Asad regime. It did so under the guise of counterterrorism. Yet Russia, along with the Asad regime, has not demonstrated the ability or willingness to even fight ISIS in Syria. Rather, the regime has shown a willingness to tolerate ISIS and other extremists in a bid to undermine the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.
Russia’s support for Asad has facilitated brutal attacks on civilians. Syria and Russia have used the UN’s Do Not Strike list as a targeting list, attacking civilian sites and creating refugees and displaced persons.
While the Asad regime plays by “Hama rules,” Moscow adheres to “Grozny rules,” razing entire cities filled with innocents to kill a handful of terrorists.
The United States, in contrast, is scrupulous in honoring its obligation to distinguish civilians from terrorists.
And Russia did nothing as Asad deployed chemical weapons on his own people. We have called out the regime for its reprehensible behavior and we have sought evidence to demonstrate its crimes.
Russia has sowed doubt and misinformation, doing everything it can to protect the Asad regime from accountability and frustrate the UN led processes trying to bring the conflict to an end.
Instead, Russia has used Syria as a forum to showcase its weapons, its mercenaries, and to build a platform to meddle in other regional issues.
In Libya, Russia has fueled the conflict, and its use of so-called “private” military forces is plain to see. It’s also violating the arms embargo.
And where is China? Playing an unhelpful role in Syria – most recently joining Russia in vetoing a call for an Idlib ceasefire.
Areas of Concern
Ultimately, we want a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China that prioritizes concrete outcomes over hopeful aspirations. While we work with China on areas of mutual interest, such as humanitarian assistance, counter narcotics, and halting the spread of infectious diseases, we will push back forcefully when Beijing undermines our interests and those of our allies and partners.
Instead of taking a leadership role on these conflicts, China is focused on increasing its economic and geopolitical position the region. Unfortunately, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has fallen flat – both for China and for its recipients. Its funding, which rarely has been efficient or market-driven, has begun to dry up.
China’s projects often come with opaque terms coupled with questionable labor practices and high interest rates that do not promote the shared economic prosperity touted by the Chinese government.
China’s track record using the local labor force is poor. China does not sufficiently engage local contractors, provide enough local jobs, or train many local workers. These Chinese practices run counter to national policies in places like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman, designed to build the capacity of the local labor force and create jobs.
U.S. and Middle Eastern governments both want infrastructure development that benefits local communities. But the promise of “high-quality development” with low, short-term costs such as the promises China made at the recent Belt and Road Forum ring hollow when China’s track record is so poor.
From Burma to Malaysia to Tanzania, governments are renegotiating the terms of their debt and investments from China, and eschewing BRI projects entirely in places like India. Not every Chinese investment project is malign, but projects that don’t meet the high standards set by inclusive organizations like the G20 will not produce desired results.
The most notable among these examples have been the disastrous outcomes of Chinese investment projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Ecuador. In each case, the false promise of development has led to the harsh reality of debt, project failure, corruption, and in some cases, Chinese control.
In contrast, the United States has enabled Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Tunisia to access over $21 billion is bonds from international markets at preferential rates through the issuance of sovereign loan guarantees. These transparent financial mechanisms have helped support key partners’ fiscal stability, while supporting economic reforms that encourage sustainable growth and foreign investment.
Unlike China and Russia, the United States offers development assistance designed to help people build better lives. To give just one example, in 2016, USAID helped eliminate polio in Egypt. Today, the United States supports immunization campaigns to keep Egypt polio free. S. programs have brought clean water and sanitation to over 25.5 million people in Egypt, and at least 1.5 million Egyptian girls can read and write better thanks to U.S. support for early grade reading.
There are many more examples of U.S. assistance programs in the region – from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant and Iraq – that are building capacities in country institutions to enhance security and stability, providing essential services and responsive governance, and driving economic reform and growth. Our total foreign assistance to the region exceeds $7 billion per year.
As we look ahead toward an increasingly digital and interconnected world economy, we need to pay more attention to the risks that compromised telecommunication suppliers like Huawei pose to national security. Chinese laws, most notably the National Intelligence Law, compel its citizens, businesses, and other organizations to cooperate with Chinese intelligence and security services and to keep such cooperation secret.
That means government agencies’ confidential data, and companies’ trade secrets could be fully available to the Chinese government if transmitted or processed on Huawei or other Chinese-supplied equipment. There are now media reports that Huawei representatives have participated in spying operations on political opponents, even without the government’s knowledge.
And on the human rights front, we want to focus attention on China’s highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims in Xinjiang. Since April 2017, the Chinese government has, by our estimates, detained more than one million individuals in internment camps where they are forced to renounce their ethnic identities, religious beliefs, or cultural and religious practices.
China’s highly repressive campaign in Xinjiang extends far beyond the camps. Officials have instituted high-tech surveillance measures, dramatic increases in the number of security personnel, the embedding of security personnel in people’s homes, and the collection of DNA and other biodata. Outside of its borders, China coerces members of Muslim minority groups to return to China from abroad, and pressures third countries to forcibly return asylum seekers.
We were disappointed by the large number of Arab countries that signed a letter to the Human Rights Council praising China’s actions in Xinjiang. We have welcomed the fact that Turkey has raised concerns about the situation and we especially welcomed Qatar’s decision to withdraw its signature from the letter. We hope others will follow this example.
We have yet to see China or Russia take a principled stand on human rights in the region. And we’re not holding our breath. They remain unconcerned about human suffering and completely reject the rights of conscience that we – and we believe the people of the Middle East and North Africa region – value so dearly.
The U.S. Value Proposition
Our positive vision of the United States as a force for good in the region is based on a value proposition that neither China nor Russia can match.
We believe in freedom, openness, and political and economic inclusion. We believe that economic dynamism and private sector growth can benefit all. We believe in fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law, both of which are necessary for that growth to be sustainable.
This unwavering commitment has strengthened America, and we want it to strengthen our partners as well. Our actions ultimately seek to equip our partners to face modern challenges with a vision anchored in these fundamental rights and freedoms.
We also help pull people out of poverty and live more prosperous lives. We understand that a country is most successful when its people are free and prosperous.
American companies can bring the latest in technology and business methods and want to build lasting partnerships with companies, governments, and citizens of the region.
We are interested not just in building physical infrastructure in the region, but also the human capital and government capacity needed to power long-term growth. Creating economic opportunity abroad is not only in our national security interest – it opens markets and generates revenue for U.S. companies. It is a win-win.
Since the 2011, the United States has contributed over $58 billion throughout the Middle East and North Africa, working across all sectors to foster stability and prosperity, while working with governments to combat common enemies seeking to sow chaos and destruction.
Over that same period, Russia has provided less than $100 million in humanitarian aid to the Middle East.
In 2018, China announced billions in loans for the region, but only $100 million in assistance. Simply stated, there is no comparison.
Russia and China engage in the region to further their own interests, often at the expense of their partners. There is a frustrating and disappointing history of broken commitments and violations of international norms by Russia and China that, instead of improving, has worsened in recent years.
We are committed to a vision of shared prosperity, regional and global security and stability, and lasting partnership.
The global context in which the Middle East sits has changed in recent years. The emergence of great power competition requires a new strategic vision. We have one that I find compelling: Secretary Pompeo has articulated how the United States is and will remain a force for good in the region.
As we look to the future, we will need to view the region in a new light. We will now look to Middle Eastern governments to be constructive partners on both regional challenges and on global engagements with Russia and China.
It is a challenge the United States is well positioned to lead.