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A US ally is forging ties with China's air force but probably won't get its J-20 stealth fighter

Paul Iddon   

A US ally is forging ties with China's air force but probably won't get its J-20 stealth fighter
  • The UAE is boosting ties with China's air force.
  • It could be a scheme to increase pressure to buy the US F-35 stealth fighter.

The United Arab Emirates is expanding air force ties with China in what may be a scheme to brighten their dim prospects of acquiring F-35 Lightning II stealth jets from the United States. However, this developing cooperation will not likely result in Abu Dhabi ordering alternative fifth-generation fighters from Beijing.

Major General Saleh Mohammed bin Mejren Al Ameri, commander of the UAE's Joint Operations, met with the commander of China's People's Liberation Army Air Force on April 23 to promote closer air force cooperation.

The meeting occurred as the UAE's prospects for acquiring F-35s "may be getting slimmer," according to one analysis. Another even speculated Abu Dhabi may eventually seek China's premier stealth fighter: the fifth-generation J-20 Mighty Dragon.

The US approved a $19 billion deal to sell 50 F-35s and 18 MQ-4B drones to the UAE in January 2021. However, the deal hasn't materialized amid Washington's growing concern about China's central role in Emirati 5G infrastructure and suspicions that Beijing is establishing a military base there. On the other hand, Abu Dhabi has grown frustrated with American preconditions about the extent of its technical cooperation with China.

The UAE ordered 80 Dassault Rafales from France in December 2021. It has also bought 12 L-15 trainer jets from Beijing and participated in a joint air force training exercise in China for the first time in 2023. Such moves did little to assuage Washington's concerns about expanding defense ties between China and its Arab Gulf allies.

Nevertheless, Abu Dhabi's budding ties don't suggest it is replacing its Western military hardware with Chinese alternatives.

"The main factor to consider here is that, unlike US policymakers, the UAE doesn't see arms purchases from China as a zero-sum deal," Ahmed Aboudouh, associate fellow at Chatham House and head of the China Studies Unit at the Emirates Policy Center, told Business Insider. "Abu Dhabi's first choice would certainly be to acquire the F-35 sale over any Chinese equivalent."

Aboudouh noted that approaching China to discuss procuring advanced arms is driven by Washington's hesitance to provide Abu Dhabi with alternatives, which the UAE views as "crucial" based on "national security considerations and high regional volatility."

Furthermore, Abu Dhabi wants its "balancing strategy" between Washington and Beijing to pay off.

Sebastien Roblin, a widely published military-aviation journalist, also sees Abu Dhabi's balancing act in play.

"The nature of the relationship with the Gulf states and the US is that they nurture secondary ties with China and Russia to create additional pressure on Washington to sell to them, as one might flirt with a third party to attract the jealous attention from a partner," Roblin told BI.

Both analysts see little significance in the L-15 acquisition and joint exercises.

"I still see the bilateral relations between the air forces as very superficial and symbolic," Aboudouh said. "Strategic depth in military partnerships takes time to build. I don't see this relationship developing into something similar to what the UAE Air Force has with France or even Russia anytime soon."

Roblin pointed out that while the L-15s are "respectable advanced trainers sold at a bargain unit price," they lack the benefit of "common systems" with the F-16 and Rafale jets, which Emirati fighter pilots will eventually graduate to fly. Furthermore, the Emirati air force fighter fleet is already large for such a small country, making it unlikely the L-15s will serve any combat role.

"So the sale, like the common exercises, serves as a warning signal to the US that the UAE may take its money elsewhere," Roblin said. "Of course, there's a risk of that backfiring and convincing Washington it can't be trusted with more advanced US hardware like the F-35 if ties with China grow too cozy."

Aboudouh believes it's "hard to predict" if the UAE might eventually acquire fifth-generation Chinese aircraft.

"The main factor at play here is the US vision for its military relations with the UAE," Aboudouh said. "In other words, at a time of extensive debate on a US-Saudi defense pact potentially signed soon, the UAE would be interested in a similar deal. Will the US, in turn, deem signing this deal with Abu Dhabi a strategic necessity to curb Abu Dhabi's expanding military cooperation with Beijing?"

Roblin also believes the "much-touted" Saudi defense pact could prove pivotal. If the deal is realized and leads to a Saudi F-35 sale, that could "indicate potential" for the UAE finally getting the fifth-generation American aircraft, too, provided it "locks out certain exchanges" with Beijing — such as Chinese radars and aircraft that could expose the F-35's stealth.

There is also the salient fact that China hasn't exported any stealth fighters and Beijing will not likely offer the J-20 for export. It will likely sell the export version of its lighter J-35, the FC-31, which Pakistan is reportedly interested in procuring, but those haven't entered operational service yet.

"The UAE also had a stake in Russia's Su-75 'export stealth fighter' pitched prior to 2022, but it doesn't seem appealing between risks of Western sanctions and Russian mass-production issues related to the war in Ukraine," Roblin said.

He suggested South Korea's KF-21 or Turkey's TF Kaan fighter projects could offer "less geopolitically fraught options" to the UAE. The Emirates is already reportedly interested in investing in the KF-21.

The UAE would probably not be interested in procuring advanced fourth-generation Chinese fighters either, especially given the enormous Rafale order it just signed.

Roblin also questioned why the UAE would buy jets like the J-10 and J-16 from China when it already has access to equivalent or superior Western jets like the F-15EX, F-16V, and, of course, the Rafale.

"Introducing such Chinese aircraft dependent on different weapons and communication ecosystems would be logistically senseless unless there was a broader project to convert to a Chinese fleet," Robin said.

"But I'm skeptical the UAE would go all-in in that direction."

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