china concerns

Leaf: China has ‘actively acted’ against Mideast security

The State Department official warned of China’s growing influence in the region

Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr/U.S. Air Force

Barbara Leaf

Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Thursday that growing Chinese influence in the Middle East has made the region less safe.

Leaf argued that Chinese influence in the region has been inimical to the goals the U.S. has been pursuing, including Israeli-Palestinian peace and expanding normalization between Israel and Arab states.

“The [People’s Republic of China] hasn’t just been absent from the space… in some significant instances Beijing has actively acted against the region’s security,” she explained, “whether in its relations with Iran or Syria or in its sales of advanced weaponry, UAVs as an example, that are used by non-state actors against our Gulf partners and others.”

She clarified that while the Chinese government has not directly provided the drones to Iranian proxy groups, it “does not attempt to curtail that flow.” 

Leaf was skeptical of the Gulf states’ response to the issue, saying that “I look forward to [the] day” when the Gulf states “hold China to account… because frankly China’s getting away with murder in some terms.”

Iran and China struck a deal last year to expand their cooperation, which Leaf described as an attempt by Iran to duck U.S. sanctions by turning to alternative markets.

Beijing, Leaf said, “could play a constructive role vis-a-vis Iran, but they don’t,” particularly with regard to “kinetic activity” and support to terrorist proxies. But, she added, China has been “reasonably constructive” in nuclear talks with Iran.

She emphasized that the U.S. has been sanctioning additional entities in Iran to try to staunch Iranian-Chinese cooperation, and “you will see an increasing tempo of these sanctions.”

Leaf also cited Chinese acquisitions of stakes in critical infrastructure in the Middle East, such as ports, as potentially creating “new vulnerabilities in the region.” China is operating a port in Haifa, Israel, but Leaf did not specifically address Israeli-Chinese bilateral relations.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) —  of the most prominent critics of the U.S.’s handling of the investigation of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s death — used his questioning time to discuss the investigation into her killing.

“A lot of us are concerned that this is not getting the attention that it deserves,” Van Hollen said, noting that the State Department had missed a deadline he and colleagues had set in a demand for further information about the U.S.’s report on the case.

Leaf said she had not seen the U.S.’s report on the case, released a month ago, as she had been traveling, but had been briefed on it. She also said she was not aware that Secretary of State Tony Blinken had called for an “independent” investigation of the situation.

“That report, as you know, just stapled the [Palestinian Authority] report and the [Israeli Defense Forces] report together and then reached some conclusions,” Van Hollen said. “An independent report does not include a PA report and an independent report does not include an IDF report.”

Van Hollen also questioned Leaf about the United Arab Emirates’ conviction in absentia and recent detention of American attorney Asim Ghafoor, expressing concern that the administration was not “doing everything it can to ensure due process.” 

The UAE revealed this week that the U.S. Department of Justice provided information central to Ghafoor’s conviction. Leaf pledged to meet with Ghafoor’s American lawyers prior to his next hearing and keep the committee informed on the issue.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said he shared Van Hollen’s concerns on both issues.

Leaf also confirmed that the U.S.’s prospective sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE — initially agreed to in connection with the Abraham Accords — that was shelved in part due to issues regarding Chinese-made 5G technology within the UAE, remains on hold.