Abu Dhabi-Beijing relations cast doubt on US F-35 sale to UAE

WASHINGTON — In recent weeks, US intelligence agencies observed two Chinese People’s Liberation Army planes landing at an airport in the Emirates and unloading boxes with unidentified contents, according to US officials with access to the information.

Cargo airlifts and other signs of emerging security cooperation between Beijing and Abu Dhabi, a key US ally in the Gulf region, are worrying US officials and casting doubt on multibillion-dollar state-of-the-art US arms sales to the Emirates deals, officials say.

In April, the Biden administration announced after an assessment of the situation that it would continue the process of selling 50 F-35 fighter jets, 18 Reaper drones and the latest generation of ammunition worth $23 billion. These transactions had all been approved in the final hours of former President Donald Trump’s administration.

But signs of closer ties between Beijing and Abu Dhabi have since clouded the future of those operations, according to US officials seeking assurances about the weapons. In particular, they want to ensure that the Emirates do not allow the Chinese or anyone else access to the latest American military technologies.

“The transfer of F-35s — the flagship of America’s arsenal — implies an exclusivity of Emirati relations with Washington,” said David Schenker, who managed the file as Mr. Trump’s assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs. “There is still a lot to be done before this equipment can be handed over,” he adds.

A 2020 Pentagon report on China’s military ambitions indicated that the United Arab Emirates was among countries where China is “most likely already considering and planning to build additional overseas military logistics facilities.”

The F-35s, the most advanced US jet fighters, are not expected to be delivered to the United Arab Emirates until 2027. Emirati officials are citing their longstanding security cooperation with Washington to allay recent US fears.

“The UAE has a long history of protecting American military technology, both within the coalitions in which we have served alongside the U.S. military, and within the Emirati territory itself, where for many years a wide range of sensitive… Americans for military equipment,” said Yousef Otaiba, the Emirates Ambassador to the United States.

Chinese officials did not respond to a request for comment, but they do emphasize their intention to strengthen their bond of trust and expand dialogue and cooperation with the UAE.

A 2020 Pentagon report on China’s military ambitions listed the United Arab Emirates as one of the countries where China is “already considering and most likely planning to build additional overseas military logistics facilities.” Some defense officials believe China intends to set up a naval base in the Emirates, and intelligence reports say Beijing has considered sending several hundred military personnel to the country.

Although they have decided to speed up sales of F-35s and drones, Biden government officials say they are still trying to negotiate the terms of the deal with the Emirates government. The agreements reached under Mr Trump are indeed perceived as unsatisfactory by officials in the new US administration.

“The general view of the United Arab Emirates is that when they buy military equipment from another government, it is up to them to decide how and when it will be used,” summarizes a senior American official following near’s file .

The latter adds that during talks with Abu Dhabi, Washington formulated three demands: maintaining Israel’s qualitative advantage in military affairs; the Emirates’ guarantee that third countries and especially China have no access to F-35 and drone technology; Limiting the use of these weapons in Yemen and Libya, war zones where Emirati forces are present.

Another official says Washington has made it clear to Abu Dhabi that allowing China to set up a military base in the UAE would be tantamount to ending arms sales. The problem, according to this official, is that Washington and Abu Dhabi don’t necessarily agree on the definition of the word “base.”

US officials have expressed concern about China’s military and security activities in the Gulf — it also cooperates with Saudi Arabia on civilian nuclear power — suggesting Beijing has long-term ambitions there.

As part of the United States’ redefinition of security goals, where China has become a priority at the expense of the Middle East, the administration asked the Pentagon to withdraw certain American military capabilities from the region and halted sales to Saudi Arabia of precision-guided munitions, used in its air campaign in Yemen. American military leaders believe that reducing America’s presence could be viewed by certain rival states as a void to be filled.

Concerns over UAE-China military cooperation were high on the agenda of a delegation of senior officials from the White House, Defense Department and State Department who traveled to the UAE and other countries in the region earlier this month to say officials. Members of this delegation declined to comment.

“We are currently engaged in an intensive security dialogue with the United Arab Emirates, where we can and do express our concerns on any issue. In doing so, we will protect the national security interests of the United States in all areas,” Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Jessica McNulty said in a statement.

Chinese telecom company Huawei has increased investments in the region to become the main 5G provider there. For its part, the Emirates government has partnered with Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical company Sinopharm to commercialize its vaccine against Covid-19.

US officials consider the Emirates a valuable security partner; They have worked with Washington and its partners in the fight against the terrorist organizations al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and have deployed troops in Afghanistan.

In addition, the Emirates are among the signatories to the Abraham Accords, which formalized the diplomatic relations of this Arab state with Israel.

Connections between China and the Arabian Peninsula date back to the days of the Silk Road, when the region was integrated into this trade route. Beijing and Abu Dhabi formalized their relationship 35 years ago. The Chinese President and Vice President visited the Emirates in 2018.

Chinese telecom company Huawei has increased investments in the region to become the main 5G provider there. For its part, the Emirates government has partnered with Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical company Sinopharm to commercialize its vaccine against Covid-19.

In a column published by the Chinese ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in March, aimed at boosting ties between the two countries, Nian Jan wrote: “Over the past decade, China has a total of 31 squadrons, 100 warships and 26,000 Officers dispatched soldiers to conduct escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and in the waters off Somalia.

Strengthening trade, technology and investment ties between the UAE and China comes as the United States changes the way its armed forces are deployed, notes Mr. Schenker, who currently works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Unclear from the Americans, the UAE appear to be hedging their bets, trying to bet on both Washington and Beijing as security partners. »

Gordon Lubold in Washington contributed to this article

(Translated from the original English version by Grégoire Arnould)

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