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Secret Chinese Port Project in UAE stopped under US Pressure

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Construction has been halted on a secret development inside of a Chinese shipping port near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates after intense US pressure, CNN and Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

The port project has been the focus of a flurry of diplomatic engagements in recent months by senior US officials and prominent lawmakers on Capitol Hill and has potentially jeopardized the sale of advanced American jet fighters and other advanced munitions to the UAE, according to CNN.

The Wall Street Journal quoted people familiar with the matter as saying that 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.

The WSJ reported that satellite imagery of the port of Khalifa had revealed suspicious construction work inside a container terminal built and operated by a Chinese shipping corporation, Cosco. The evidence included huge excavations apparently for a multi-storey building and the fact that the site was covered in an apparent attempt to evade scrutiny.

The Biden administration held urgent talks with the UAE authorities, who appeared to be unaware of the military activities, according to the WSJ report. It said the discussions included two direct conversations between Joe Biden and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, in May and August.

US officials for at least a year have been closely watching the construction of what they believed was a military facility inside the commercial Khalifa port, about 50 miles from the UAE capital, according to CNN.

Although China -- and the UAE -- portrayed the port venture as purely commercial, US intelligence has observed ships disguised as commercial vessels that officials recognized as a type typically used by the Chinese military for signals intelligence collection entering the port, CNN quoted intelligence sources as saying.

A spokesman for the UAE Embassy in Washington told CNN that the UAE "never had an agreement, plan, talks or intention to host a Chinese military base or outpost of any kind."

China developing ports around the world

The report comes four years after the Chinese navy established a facility in Djibouti, its first overseas base, which was placed within a Chinese-run commercial port, at Doraleh.

China has sought to develop commercial ports in outposts around the world in what US officials see as a clear effort to develop a foothold for military access. China has developed commercial ports in Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota ), as well as built its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, CNN said.

Both the Trump administration and the Biden administration have sought to pressure the UAE to put a stop to the project at the port, which is run by a Chinese shipping conglomerate.

Senior US lawmakers also addressed the port project with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, during a visit to the region in June. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a tweet that he had discussed "our mutual concern regarding Chinese military activities in the Middle East" with bin Zayed.

Even though construction on the secretive development inside the port has now apparently been stopped, current and former officials say the broader Chinese presence in the country still may endanger the planned $23 billion sale of F-35 jets, Reaper drones and other advanced munitions, CNN report said.

"The F-35 is our crown jewel. We need to be able to protect technology and security for all of our partners," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mira Resnick told CNN earlier this week. "Those are the conversations we are having with Emiratis about what kind of choices they can make now, to make sure they can be part of the F-35 program."

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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