WASHINGTON—U.S. intelligence agencies learned this spring that China was secretly building what they suspected was a military facility at a port in the United Arab Emirates, one of the U.S.’s closest Mideast allies, according to people familiar with the matter.
Alarmed, the Biden administration warned the Emirati government that a Chinese military presence in its country could threaten ties between the two nations. After rounds of meetings and visits by U.S. officials, construction was recently halted, according to people familiar with the matter.
The intelligence findings and U.S. warnings concerned a site at a port near the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi. People familiar with the matter said it appeared the Emirati government, which hosts U.S. military forces and is seeking to buy advanced American jet fighters and drones, was unaware of the military nature of China’s activity.
China’s effort to establish what U.S. officials believe would be a military foothold in the U.A.E.—and the Biden administration’s push to persuade the Emiratis to stop the base from being built—reflect the challenges the administration faces in attempting to compete with Beijing globally.
The Middle East increasingly appears to be a primary ground for U.S.-Chinese competition. The U.S. played a central role in the region for decades, supporting the creation of the state of Israel, basing troops in the region, and recently brokering the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and some Gulf states, including the U.A.E. Beijing has countered with trade deals and vaccine diplomacy—and now appears to be trying to expand its military presence.
The trajectory of Chinese activity at the port in the U.A.E. began as have other attempts by the Chinese, with Beijing leveraging commercial ties to establish an anchor for its military. China opened its first military outpost abroad in the East African nation of Djibouti in 2017 to facilitate operations around the Indian Ocean and Africa. In Cambodia in 2019, China signed a secret agreement to allow its armed forces to use a navy base. Elsewhere, China has built commercial port facilities in Pakistan and Sri Lanka that could be used by its rapidly expanding navy.
In recent years, China has strengthened its economic ties with the U.A.E. and is now one of its largest trading partners as well as the biggest consumer of Gulf oil. The U.A.E., meanwhile, has embraced China’s Huawei Technologies Co.’s telecom infrastructure, which senior Western officials warn leaves it vulnerable to Chinese espionage. Beijing has denied the allegation.
About a year ago, intelligence reports started trickling in to U.S. officials indicating suspicious Chinese activity at Khalifa port, about 50 miles north of Abu Dhabi, where China’s giant COSCO shipping conglomerate had built and now operates a commercial container terminal, people familiar with matter said.
The initial information was inconclusive, the people said. But this spring, classified satellite imagery led U.S. officials to conclude that the Chinese were building some sort of military installation at the port. The Biden administration was alarmed and launched an intense diplomatic effort to persuade the Emiratis that the site had a military purpose and that it should stop the construction, the people familiar with the matter said.
“The U.A.E. has never had an agreement, plan, talks or intention to host a Chinese military base or outpost of any kind,” a U.A.E. Embassy spokesman in Washington said.
A spokesman for China’s Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Among other clues, U.S. intelligence agencies this spring detected the excavation of a huge hole to accommodate a multistory building and the erection of girders, a person familiar with the matter said. At some point, the construction site was covered over to prevent scrutiny. People familiar with the matter declined to provide more detail about the nature of the suspected military site.
The U.A.E. is one of the U.S.’s closest Middle East allies, and the two countries have longstanding trade and security ties, making China’s incursion there even more potentially menacing to U.S. interests.
The Gulf nation is a major oil and gas producer, hosts U.S. military forces, cooperated with Washington on counterterrorism matters, and was the first Arab country to send troops to Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion in late 2001. More recently, it has temporarily hosted Afghan refugees evacuated from Kabul following the collapse of the Afghan government over the summer.
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President Biden expressed concern about China’s growing presence in the country directly with its de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, officials said, in May and again in August. In one talk, he told MBZ, as the crown prince is known, that the U.S. feared China’s activity could have a detrimental impact on the partnership. MBZ replied he had heard Mr. Biden “loud and clear,” according to the officials.
That conversation left U.S. officials unsure whether the Emiratis were committed to keeping China out of the country.
American and Emirati officials held numerous discussions about the Khalifa port issue earlier this year, people familiar with the matter said. Then in late September, during a visit to Abu Dhabi, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Mideast aide Brett McGurk made a detailed presentation on the U.S. intelligence about the Chinese site, a person familiar with the matter said. Mr. McGurk returned this week to meet with the crown prince. and U.S. officials also recently carried out an inspection of the site, the person said, adding that officials believe that for now construction has ceased.
Concerns over nascent security cooperation between China and the U.A.E. have potentially threatened a planned $23 billion sale of as many as 50 U.S. F-35 fifth-generation fighter aircraft, 18 Reaper drones and other advanced munitions.
For its part, the U.A.E. is seeking a strategic pact with Washington that would secure the U.S.’s commitment to come to its defense if it is attacked, a person familiar with the matter. In recent years, Gulf Arab countries, who see a threat from Iran, have questioned the strength of the American commitment. They have watched the U.S. shift its focus to Asia, and the concerns grew, Gulf officials say, following the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The halt in construction appeared to put Washington’s relationship with Abu Dhabi back on track. On Tuesday, Mira Resnick, deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security, said in Dubai, a U.A.E. commercial center, that the F-35 and MQ-9 Reaper drone deal with the U.A.E. would move forward following “a robust and sustained dialogue” with the Emiratis. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to visit Abu Dhabi this weekend.
Meanwhile, a top U.A.E. official last month lamented that the U.A.E. is stuck in the middle of the showdown between the U.S. and China.
“We’re all worried, very much, by a looming Cold War,” Anwar Gargash, a U.A.E. presidential adviser, said at an Oct. 2 conference in the capital. “That is bad news for all of us because the idea of choosing is problematic in the international system.”
Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Warren P. Strobel at Warren.Strobel@wsj.com
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