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Since China constructed its first and only overseas military base in the East African country of Djibouti in 2017, there’s been speculation about where it might build one next. Today, in its annual threat assessment report, the U.S. intelligence community identified Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as locations where China “reportedly is pursuing potential bases.”

This isn’t the first time these countries have been mentioned as possible sites for Chinese military expansion. But the phrasing by the Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI) indicates the efforts could be ongoing. And that’s striking in the case of the UAE.

China and the Khalifa Port

In 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials learned that Beijing may be building a secret military base at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Port, home to a container terminal operated by the Chinese state-owned company COSCO Shipping. Construction had been “halted” that year after President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned Emirati counterparts in direct conversations.

But it doesn’t appear that the chapter on the potential Chinese military facility has fully closed.

What makes the UAE different from Cambodia and Equatorial Guinea is that it’s an American ally and has provided a strategic location for U.S. military efforts in the Middle East and South Asia.

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Since 2002, the Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE has hosted the U.S. Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. The base and its thousands of U.S. military personnel have served critical roles in reconnaissance missions targeting Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. A 2016 report in Stars and Stripes described Al Dhafra as “the busiest base in the world for U.S. Air Force surveillance.” 

The U.S. Navy also visits Dubai’s deepwater Port of Jebel Ali, its busiest port of call, and operates out of the Fujairah Naval Base.

So the idea of a Chinese military facility in this part of the world — close to established U.S. bases and along crucial oil shipping lanes — is a big deal.

But it wouldn’t be the only extra-regional Chinese military base close to an American facility. Along with a Chinese base, Djibouti hosts bases of many other militaries, including the U.S., Japan, and several European countries. That may very well be part of the Chinese strategy. China, the world’s largest importer of oil, could say, “If you can build a base here, why can’t we?”

China’s ‘Strategic Strongpoints’

Over the past decade, Chinese state-owned companies have rapidly expanded their operation of commercial ports abroad. According to scholars Isaac Kardon and Wendy Leutert, Chinese companies own or operate terminals in 96 ports across the world.

China’s motives are primarily economic. State-owned companies, following directives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to go global, have pursued business opportunities worldwide.

China, the world’s largest trader of goods, is home to seven of the world’s ten largest container ports. Behemoths like COSCO and China Merchants Port that operate these ports have been exporting their expertise abroad to developed countries like Greece and Israel. And they’ve been selling dreams to developing countries that they too can recreate the economic miracle of Shenzhen, where a fishing village transformed into a manufacturing powerhouse and global city. It’s called the “port-park-city” model.

But China’s rivals fear these commercial ports can be of dual use for Beijing. Some in China’s strategic community have, in fact, discussed this very idea, terming potential dual-use facilities as “strategic strongpoints.”

For Chinese strategic thinkers, these venues, including Gwadar in Pakistan and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, need not necessarily host a full-fledged military base. But they can offer a range of services — like refueling, replenishing, and repairing ships — that aid China’s overseas military operations, at least in peacetime.

China’s detractors have accused it of engaging in “debt-trap diplomacy” — drowning poor countries in debt so as to extract strategic concessions from them, like hosting a military base. But the UAE doesn’t fit into this narrative. It’s neither weak nor poor.

Like the Saudis, the Emiratis have been hedging between the U.S. and China for some time. (They’ve also been doing the same on the Russia-Ukraine war.)

Gulf states question the reliability of Washington’s support and see American power in decline as a multipolar world order emerges. The region, a major source of energy for China, has ramped up imports of Chinese arms, though superior American hardware makes up the backbone of their militaries. In December, Saudi Arabia hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at a massive China-Arab world forum, just months after it coldly received Biden.

The Khalifa Port began as part of Abu Dhabi’s attempts to diversify away from its dependence on energy and position itself as a transshipment hub, like neighboring Dubai. It’s been a success. Now the Khalifa Port could help the UAE diversify away from America.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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