China’s ambitions to establish a military footprint in the oil-rich region appear to have become a reality.
Satellite images emerged last week suggesting that China was building a multi-storey military facility in the UAE port of Khalifa.
The UAE government appeared not to be aware of the building in the terminal which was built and operated by the Chinese shipping corporation Cosco.
Building work has now apparently stopped, following a warning from the US.
The UAE is one of America’s most trusted strategic allies in the Middle East. It hosts a US airbase in al-Dhafra, Abu Dhabi.
Emirati soldiers fought side by side with American forces in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen and the government has purchased American weapons worth billions of dollars.
On the other hand, the UAE is one of the major oil importers to China. Oil accounts for approximately 20 per cent of China’s energy consumption, and the Gulf is China’s biggest source.
The UAE is a regional hub for Chinese investments through the Belt and Road Initiative.
It is the most important trade partner in the Arab world and is responsible for 28 per cent of China’s non-oil trade with the Middle East. And, more than 200,000 Chinese citizens live and invest in the Gulf country.
Limiting its ties strictly to economic cooperations and investing in growing business markets traditionally allowed China to hedge its bets and avoid sliding into simmering geopolitical entanglements between regional rivals.
Beijing “traditionally has viewed direct military involvement abroad as a last resort,” says Sophie Zinser, a fellow in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East North Africa Programmes at Chatham House.
But reports of the alleged military base in the UAE may indicate that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might be ready to lock horns with the US military in the Gulf.
“As China becomes increasingly confident and ambitious about realising the Chinese dream of achieving national rejuvenation, it believes it naturally needs to pursue global power and global influence to go along with its expanding economic presence in the world,” says Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in Carnegie Institute in Beijing.
The reality of what is suspected to be a Chinese military facility in the UAE could embroil China into the region’s conflict and end its “free-riding” on the back of the US security commitments, a position the Chinese leaders are seemingly keen to avoid.