China’s ‘secret’ UAE military facility sends message to nationalists at home

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a The Chinese military base in the Gulf has long been a nightmare for many US officials, who over the years have watched the growing ties between China and their Gulf allies with a watchful eye.

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Now, his skepticism about China’s ambitions to establish a military footprint in the oil-rich region has moved a step closer to becoming a reality.

Satellite images surfaced last week that showed China is building a multi-storey military facility in the port of Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates. It appears that the UAE government is not aware of the building in the terminal that was built and operated by the Chinese shipping corporation COSCO. The construction work has now apparently stopped following the US warning.


The United Arab Emirates is one of America’s most trusted strategic allies in the Middle East. It hosts a US airbase in Al-Dhafra, Abu Dhabi. Emirati troops fought shoulder to shoulder with US forces in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, and the government has bought billions of dollars in US weapons.

On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates is one of the major oil importers of China. Oil accounts for about 20 percent of China’s energy consumption, and the Gulf is China’s largest source.

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The UAE is a regional center for Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative. It is the most important trading partner in the Arab world and accounts for 28 percent of China’s non-oil trade with the Middle East. And, more than 200,000 Chinese citizens live and invest in the Gulf country.

Strictly limiting its ties to economic cooperation and investing in growing trading markets has traditionally allowed China to hedge its bets and avoid slipping into geopolitical entanglements between regional rivals. “Beijing has traditionally looked at direct military engagement abroad as a last resort,” says Sophie Jinser, fellow for Asia-Pacific and Middle East North Africa Programs at Chatham House.

But reports of an alleged military base in the United Arab Emirates may indicate that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may be ready to engage with US forces in the Gulf.

“As China becomes increasingly confident and ambitious about realizing the Chinese dream of achieving national rejuvenation, it believes that its growing economic presence in the world as well as global power and global influence needs to be pursued,” says Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Institute in Beijing.

The reality of what is suspected to be a Chinese military facility in the UAE could embroil China in the region’s conflict and end its “free-riding” on the back of US security commitments, a situation Chinese leaders are eager to avoid. .

Analysts also suggest that such construction would still illustrate China’s soft power projection overseas – a similar notion to Beijing’s logistics supply base in Djibouti. Any plans for China’s deployment of a strategic troop based on the Gulf would clearly be futile as it would be surrounded by a complex network of larger and more sophisticated US military bases on all fronts.

But the biggest dilemma facing China’s decision-makers is domestic – arising from the promotion of nationalism domestically, as China’s interests abroad increasingly grow.

Netizens on social media have questioned China’s lax policy of avoiding military intervention abroad to protect Chinese citizens in the event of attacks.

In August, a bus carrying 13 Chinese nationals working on a dam project in Pakistan exploded. Over the weekend, gunmen abducted five Chinese nationals near a mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rather than targeting the regional US-led status quo, the alleged Chinese military facility will be a message designed to assuage domestic critics as President Xi Jinping prepares for a third term at the helm of the Communist Party.

“China was probably thinking: ‘America has one, America is strong, we want to appear strong, so instead of ‘destroy America,’ there must be one,” Zinser says.

Nonetheless, reports of any Chinese military footprint in the region would upset the US administration as it quietly fights to scrap a billion-dollar contract with telecommunications giant Huawei to provide 5G mobile networks to its Gulf allies.

US officials believe that the use of Chinese company equipment in the Gulf represents an immediate security risk to US military and intelligence assets in the region.

Growing ties between the Emirates and China threaten to put the UAE’s remarkable $23 billion deal to put 50 F-35 stealth fighter jets, the Crown Jewel in the US Airforce and the Reaper drone on the backburner.

The United States, under President Donald Trump, agreed to sell the warplanes after the United Arab Emirates established ties with Israel as part of the “Abrahamic Agreement” last year. But the Trump and Biden administrations had concerns over Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Beijing and its security implications.

Last week, however, a US official announced that Washington intends to proceed with the sale, but stressed that it must have a clear understanding of its “Emirates obligations.”

Despite a bipartisan consensus on the urgency to block China’s security ambitions in the region, officials in the US understand that not going ahead with the sale could have significant consequences on Washington’s longstanding alliance with Abu Dhabi.

“The Biden administration, like the Trump administration that preceded it, has made a calculated decision that not selling the F-35 will accelerate the United Arab Emirates’ leanings toward Russia and China, undermining the Abrahamic Agreement, And it will result in significant loss of revenue.” Samuel Ramani, Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

“While there are technology-sharing risks to selling the F-35 to the United Arab Emirates, the geopolitical risks of voiding the agreement are seen in the US as even greater. So sales of the F-35 are flourishing,” he added.

The sale could also help restore shaken confidence among Gulf allies in America’s commitment to regional security, heightened by Washington’s larger concerns in Asia and the messy military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The perception of America’s disengagement from the Middle East has prompted many allies, including the United Arab Emirates, to diversify their commercial and security partnerships, seeking greater ties with China, Russia, India and the European Union.

Ramani suggests that the alleged Chinese military facility recently discovered in the UAE “is a reflection of its increasingly multipolar foreign and security policy.”

But as with China, the UAE is looking for more than a commercial partner. The two countries have many similarities in their national development strategies, including a long-term approach to their place in the world.

“China and the United Arab Emirates have national policy goals, including diversification of exports, bringing their domestic workforce into a more white-collar industry, and a desire to grow rapidly on the international stage,” says Jinser.

This multifaceted fast-paced cooperation will make future coordination inevitable in the security sector.

“It is logical that the next attempt will be in the security sector, even if the basis of this nature is a brazen and unexpected move,” says Ramani.


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