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China-UAE ties raise US technology safety questions for lawmakers

Expert warns of deliberate or 'accidental' leakage of tech information to Beijing

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates meets with 
Chinese President Xi Jinping in China on Feb. 5.
Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China on Feb. 5. (Shen Hong/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Congress has directed U.S. intelligence agencies to take a closer look at the growing relationship between China and the United Arab Emirates, raising questions about American military technology leaking to Beijing via a close ally. 

In a fiscal 2022 intelligence authorization bill that was tucked into an omnibus spending measure passed last week, lawmakers asked U.S. spy agencies to assess and provide details on the “cooperation between China and the United Arab Emirates regarding defense, security, technology, and other strategically sensitive matters that implicate the national security interests of the United States.”

Lawmakers directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to reexamine earlier assurances from the office that the UAE had implemented safeguards to protect U.S. military technology. 

Congress asked the ODNI whether such steps by the UAE “are viable and sufficient to protect technology of the United States from being transferred to China or other third parties.”

The congressional focus on the China-UAE ties comes after The Wall Street Journal late last year reported satellite imagery showing significant construction at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa port, which is operated by the Chinese company Cosco. The report said U.S. officials suspected the construction could be a secret military base, and top White House officials including national security adviser Jake Sullivan visited the UAE. 

The construction was suspended after U.S. officials visited the UAE, the Journal reported. UAE officials told the newspaper it had no agreement or intentions to host a Chinese military base in the country. 

The growing strategic rivalry between the United States and China has migrated to different geographic theaters and has implications for U.S. allies, said John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute. 

“Technology transfer to any partner, not necessarily the UAE, could be another candidate” that bears greater scrutiny as a result of the U.S.-China rivalry, Calabrese said. 

“The United States is going to be that much more sensitive because of the risk of deliberate transfer or accidental [leakage] of technology to the Chinese,” Calabrese said. 

While U.S. officials were raising concerns about the China-UAE ties, the Emiratis also were in discussions to buy dozens of F-35 jet fighters, surveillance drones and other weapons from the United States, a possible transaction valued at more than $20 billion. 

In the late 1990s, the United States courted the UAE and sold it a batch of F-16 jets that were even more advanced than what the U.S. Air Force flew at the time. The deal, valued at about $7 billion in 1998, was one of the largest such arms sales at the time. 

The Trump administration promoted the UAE to among the closest of U.S. allies in the Middle East, a small but influential country sometimes referred to as “Little Sparta.” Emiratis flew U.S.-made F-16 jets in the fight against the Islamic State. 

UAE leaders also had backed the ongoing Saudi-led military conflict in Yemen, which triggered a widespread humanitarian crisis. In retaliation, Yemen-based Houthi rebels fired missiles and launched drone strikes against the UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi. 

Nevertheless, the potential sale of F-35 jets was met with bipartisan opposition in Congress. A Senate vote to block the sale of the jets to the UAE failed narrowly in December 2020.

At the same time, the United States also was pressing the UAE and several other U.S. allies around the world to not buy 5G telecom equipment from China’s Huawei.  

In December 2021, UAE officials decided to abandon the U.S. weapons deal, the Journal and other news outlets reported. Biden administration officials insisted they were still in talks. 

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby late last year said the United States was willing to work with the UAE to address both countries’ concerns. 

“The U.S. partnership with the UAE is more strategic and more complex than any one weapons sale,” Kirby told reporters in December 2021. “We will always insist, as a matter of statutory requirements and policy, on a variety of end-user requirements. That’s typical.”

A top UAE adviser visiting Washington in December said his country was concerned about getting caught up in the “new Cold War” between the United States and China. 

“What we are worried about is this fine line between acute competition and a new Cold War,” Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to the UAE government, said at an event hosted by the Arab Gulf States Institute. “Because I think we, as a small state, will be affected negatively by this, but will not have the ability in any way to affect this competition even positively really.”

In February, the defense publication Janes reported that the UAE had struck a deal with China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp. to buy 12 of the state-owned company’s L-15 jet aircraft, with options to buy another 36. 

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