UAE and China discussing enhanced military air field collaboration

Amid the thawing of diplomatic relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates obtained approval from the Trump administration to purchase 50 F-35A fighter-bombers from Lockheed Martin. However, this proposed sale was quickly put on hold as one of the initial actions by US diplomacy following the commencement of Joe Biden’s presidential term. 

This decision was driven by two central considerations. Firstly, handing the F-35A over to the UAE Air Force could potentially undermine the ‘Qualitative Military Edge’ [QME] – the steadfast commitment of the United States to maintain Israel’s military superiority in the region. Additionally, the deepening ties between Abu Dhabi and Beijing, emphasized by the involvement of Chinese equipment manufacturer, Huawei, in the Emirates’ 5G network, could increase the risk of espionage. 

Nevertheless, to modernize its combat aviation fleet, the United Arab Emirates proceeded to acquire 80 state-of-the-art F4 standard Rafales in December 2021. Despite this, they did not categorically rule out the purchase of the fifth-generation F-35A fighter aircraft. However, because of the impasse with Washington, Abu Dhabi decided to terminate the negotiations. An official from the Emirates declared to Reuters, “Harsh technical requirements, restrictions [imposed by the US] on operational sovereignty, and a cost-benefit analysis necessitated this reevaluation.”

Could Turkish arms aid to Ukraine reclaim Ankara's F-35 status
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

Opportunity for China

Russia had high hopes of marketing its Su-75 “Checkmate” multi-role jet to the United Arab Emirates, which were viewed as prospective buyers. Other potential buyers include Argentina, India, and Vietnam. The aircraft was unveiled in 2021. However, it appears that Abu Dhabi has different plans. 

Recently, the UAE has been turning towards China to upgrade and bolster its military forces. After purchasing the MALE [Medium Altitude Long Endurance] Wing Loong I and Wing Loong II drones, the UAE took delivery of 12 Hongdu L-15 “Falcon” training aircraft. These aircraft were procured from China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation [CATIC], with an option to acquire 36 more units. 

China sells 12 supersonic L-15 light combat aircraft to the UAE
Photo credit: Wikipedia

However, it’s not just about enhancing their military capabilities. The operational aspect is also being considered, as evidenced by the UAE Air Force’s participation in the Falcon Shield 2023 exercises. These exercises were orchestrated by the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] in Xinjiang province in August. The specifics of these exercises are scant, but there is a plausible chance that F-16 Block 60s and/or Mirage 2000-9s were involved.

The meeting of the generals

It appears that the United Arab Emirates and China are keen to strengthen their military ties. The UAE Armed Forces Chief of Joint Operations, General Saleh Mohammed bin Majren Al Ameri, recently met with the Air Component Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force [PLAAF], General Chang Dingyu, at the Chinese Ministry of Defense’s headquarters. 

UAE and China discussing enhanced military air field collaboration
Photo credit: Twitter

The primary focus during this meeting was the mutual military cooperation between the two nations. They discussed strategies to nurture and further develop this relationship. “Several high-ranking officers and officials from the defense ministries of both countries were present,” the UAE General Staff noted via X [formerly Twitter] on April 23. 

An intriguing photo from the meeting shows the two military leaders engaged in a discussion, standing in front of a painting featuring two Chengdu J-20 5th generation “Mighty Dragon” fighter jets, the crown jewels of the Chinese Air Force. Besides its symbolic significance, this may hint at the potential of the Emirate’s order for these advanced aircraft, as suggested by their body language.

China promised an export version

chinese fc-31
Photo credit: Wikipedia

It’s doubtful that the UAE would express interest in the Chengdu J-20, especially considering the uncertainty surrounding Beijing’s willingness to export this technology. Instead, just like Pakistan, they might find the allure in the FC-31 “Gyrfalcon”, a product of the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation.  

Li Yuhai, the former deputy general manager of AVIC Group – the parent organization of Shenyang Aircraft Corporation – stated in 2014, “Our initial goal with FC-31 was to challenge the monopoly held by certain nations’ fifth-generation combat aircraft. We’re designing a unique version specifically for export.”

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