America's partners in the Middle East suspected that they were being overlooked as Washington gave increased attention to the Indo-Pacific, said a U.S. State Department official on August 4.

That observation was made by Barbara A. Leaf, assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, in comments before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee.

"Our regional partners worry that the United States' renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific comes at the expense of the Middle East and North Africa," Leaf said.

"But the truth is that we remain a global power, with global responsibilities; we are deeply engaged in both critical regions, and we must remain so."

The U.S. has a clear advantage over China in the Middle East

In the Middle East and North Africa, the United States still had "a clear advantage" over China in "areas that matter most to our national security," she said. However, China's influence in the region was growing, she warned.

'Dramatic jump' in trade with China

China's trade with the Middle East and North Africa had amounted to $15.2 billion in 2000, but by 2021 that figure had grown to $284.3 billion, she said. "That dramatic jump was driven in no small part by energy – mainly oil and natural gas," which made of 46 percent of China's current trade with the region, Leaf said.

During that same period, American trade with the region increased from $63.4 billion to just $98.4 billion, Leaf said. "We are not competing with the P.R.C. over the region's hydrocarbons," she said. The United States had reduced its dependence on imported oil to such an extent that it was now starting to export oil and natural gas, Leaf added.

As China's importance as a trading partner grew, it could find opportunities to pursue more than economic development, she said. "P.R.C. economic engagement is not always solely economic," Leaf said. "We have seen P.R.C. intellectual property theft, technology transfer, and data harvesting worldwide over the years." She noted that both Israel and the United Arab Emirates had a dynamic high-tech innovation sector which was open to being exploited by China.

The future impact of China's steadily growing economic connections in the region was also a cause for concern, Leaf said. The State Department official said she was concerned about "how Beijing might use those relationships for political and even coercive advantage."

Relations between China and Iran were another cause for concern, she said. "Beijing has aided Iran and acted against the region's interests," Leaf noted. She recalled that last year China had given final approval to a 25-year strategic partnership with Iran.

'Relentless propaganda and disinformation'

Leaf said China was using "relentless propaganda and disinformation" to enhance its own image in the region while denigrating the West and other democratic societies.

Regarding America's commitment to the region, she quoted President Joe Biden as saying, "we are not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill."

Leaf's written testimony can be found on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee website. Videos of the hearing can also be found on the site and YouTube.

During the hearing, Senator Chris Van Hollen criticized the Biden administration for not doing more to get an independent investigation into the shooting of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

The Hill noted that Leaf had been unable to answer the Maryland Democrat's question about whether the administration was still calling for such an investigation. The Hill quoted Leaf saying she would return to the senator later.

Al Arabiya quoted Leaf criticizing China for not trying to stop using Chinese-made drones in attacks against Gulf states by Iranian-supported groups.

The news outlet quoted Leaf as saying that the Chinese government did not provide the drones, but the government was making no effort to cut off the supply of drones to Iran's allies.