WASHINGTON—U.S. spy agencies in recent weeks watched as two planes belonging to China’s People’s Liberation Army landed at an airport in the United Arab Emirates and unloaded crates of undetermined materiel, according to U.S. officials who have seen the intelligence.
The transport flights, along with other signs of nascent security cooperation between Beijing and the U.A.E., a major U.S. ally in the Gulf region, have alarmed U.S. officials and cast fresh uncertainty over a multibillion-dollar sale of advanced U.S. weapons to the Emirates, the officials said.
The Biden administration said in April following a review that it would move forward with a $23 billion sale of as many as 50 F-35 fighter aircraft, 18 Reaper drones and advanced munitions, all approved in former President Donald Trump’s final hours in office.
But signs of expanding ties between Beijing and Abu Dhabi have clouded the sale’s future, U.S. officials said, as they seek guarantees about the weapons, including that the Emirates won’t allow the Chinese or others access to the latest American war-fighting technology.
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“The transfer of the F-35—the crown jewel in the U.S. arsenal—implies a degree of Emirati monogamy with Washington,” said David Schenker, who handled the issue as Mr. Trump’s assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. “More work needs to be done before these systems can be transferred,” he said.
The F-35s, the most advanced U.S. jet fighters, currently aren’t due to be delivered to the U.A.E. until 2027. Emirati officials cited their longstanding security cooperation with Washington in addressing the latest U.S. concerns.
“The U.A.E. has a long and consistent track record of protecting U.S. military technology, both in coalitions where we’ve served alongside the U.S. military and inside the U.A.E. where a broad range of sensitive U.S. military assets have been deployed for many years,” said Yousef Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the U.S.
Chinese officials didn’t respond to a request for comment. Chinese officials have pointed to plans to deepen trust and expand communication and cooperation with the U.A.E.
A 2020 Pentagon report on China’s military ambitions said that the U.A.E. was among the nations China was “very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities.” Some defense officials say they believe China hopes to build a navy base in the Emirates, and intelligence reports indicate that Beijing has discussed sending several hundred military personnel to the U.A.E.
Despite deciding to move forward with the F-35 and drone sale, Biden administration officials say they are still seeking to negotiate the conditions of the deal with the Emirati government. The terms of the U.S.-U.A.E. agreement reached under Mr. Trump were found lacking by officials in the new U.S. administration.
“The U.A.E.’s general view is, if they buy military equipment from another government, then it’s up to them to decide how and when it’s used,” said a U.S. official who follows the issue closely.
But in talks with the Emirates, this official said, Washington has made requests in three areas: that Israel’s qualitative military edge be maintained; that the U.A.E. ensure third countries, particularly China, don’t have access to the F-35 and drone technology; and that there be curbs on the weapons’ use in Yemen and Libya, war zones where Emirati forces have operated.
Another official said that the U.S. has made clear to the Emirates that allowing China to establish a military base in the U.A.E. would effectively kill the weapons sale. The problem, the official said, is that Washington and Abu Dhabi may not agree on what constitutes a “base.”
U.S. officials have expressed concern over China’s military and security activities in the Gulf—it is also cooperating with Saudi Arabia on civilian nuclear work—that suggest Beijing holds long-term ambitions there.
As part of the U.S. shift in security focus away from the Middle East and toward China, the administration has directed the Pentagon to remove some U.S. military capabilities from the region, and it has halted the sale to Saudi Arabia of precision-guided munitions that it has used in its Yemen air campaign. U.S. military commanders have said a smaller U.S. presence could be seen by rivals as a vacuum to exploit.
Concerns about U.A.E.-China military cooperation were high on the agenda for a delegation of senior White House, Defense and State Department officials who visited the U.A.E. and other countries in the region earlier this month, officials said. Members of that delegation have declined to comment.
“We have a comprehensive security dialogue under way with the U.A.E. where we can and do raise any concerns we have on any issues. That is how we will protect U.S. national security interests across the board,” a Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Jessica McNulty, said in a statement.
“ ‘Uncertain about Washington, the U.A.E. appears to be hedging its bets, looking to cultivate both Washington and Beijing as security partners.’ ”
U.S. officials consider the Emirates a valued security partner; it has worked with Washington and its partners in the fight against al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorist groups and deployed troops to Afghanistan.
The U.A.E. was among the signatories of the Abraham Accords, which formalized the Arab state’s relations with Israel.
Chinese ties to the Arabian peninsula date back to the Silk Road, as the region was part of that trade route. China and the U.A.E. formalized relations 35 years ago. China’s president and vice president visited the nation in 2018.
Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has expanded its investment in the region in a bid to be its leading 5G provider, and the U.A.E. government has also partnered with Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical firm Sinopharm to distribute its Covid-19 vaccine.
In a March editorial by China’s ambassador to the U.A.E. promoting relations between the two countries, Nian Jan noted that “over the past decade, China has sent a total of 31 fleets, 100 naval vessels and 26,000 officers and soldiers to the Gulf of Aden and waters off the coast of Somalia to carry out escort missions.”
The growing U.A.E.-China trade, technology and investment relationship comes as the U.S. changes its military force posture, said Mr. Schenker, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Uncertain about Washington, the U.A.E. appears to be hedging its bets, looking to cultivate both Washington and Beijing as security partners.”
—Gordon Lubold in Washington contributed to this article.
Write to Warren P. Strobel at Warren.Strobel@wsj.com and Nancy A. Youssef at email@example.com
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