China boosts defense cooperation with UAE as US influence wanes in Middle East
Published: Feb 23, 2023 09:05 PM
A L-15, a Chinese supersonic training aircraft, rehearses on November 13, 2021 a demonstration flight ahead of the 2021 Dubai Airshow, which is scheduled to be held from November 14-18, 2021. The Dubai Airshow is a biennial international event aimed at business professionals and the wider industry. Photo: VCG

A L-15, a Chinese supersonic training aircraft, rehearses on November 13, 2021 a demonstration flight ahead of the 2021 Dubai Airshow. Photo: VCG

After announcing the signing of a contract that will see Chinese L15 supersonic jets exported to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at an ongoing defense expo in Abu Dhabi, China's aviation industry went further and opened a UAE joint lab focusing on research and development as well as talent cultivation.

Experts said on Thursday that the move marked China's enhanced defense cooperation with the UAE, after the Arab country halted a deal to purchase F-35 fighter jets from the US.

Jointly sponsored by the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment and the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC), the UAE Joint Lab opened on Tuesday, with the aim of working with Arab countries to explore aerospace cooperation, the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) announced on Wednesday.

The two sides will focus on basic, utility and frontier technologies, carry out aviation research and development as well as talent cultivation, and build a technology cradle overseas, AVIC said.

The announcement came shortly after AVIC revealed on Tuesday that CATIC has successfully signed a contract with the UAE for the exports of the domestically developed L15 advanced trainer jet during the 16th International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX), which is being held from Monday to Friday in Abu Dhabi.

In December 2021, the UAE suspended a deal to buy US-made F-35 fighter jets and drones due to US attempts to limit Chinese technology sales, including Huawei 5G, in the Arab country, Reuters reported at the time.

Zhang Xuefeng, a Chinese military expert, told the Global Times that although Western defense firms continue to be the main arms suppliers to Middle Eastern countries, they are failing to dominate the market in the region.

Arms procurement involves geopolitical, performance and cost factors, and rich Middle Eastern countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are getting tired of the tight political strings the US attaches to arms sales when other suppliers can also provide equivalent products, Zhang said.

Fu Qianshao, a Chinese military aviation expert, told the Global Times that China's FC-31 stealth fighter jet has good market prospects in the Middle East as the US encounters difficulties in promoting its F-35 in the region.

According to UK defense think tank the Royal United Services Institute, Middle Eastern countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia are also users of Chinese CH and Wing Loong drones. In addition, Saudi Arabia has also reportedly deployed the China-made Silent Hunter anti-drone laser system.

China is exhibiting more drones and anti-drone systems at the ongoing IDEX, including a new anti-drone laser system called the Sky Shield, China Central Television reported on Wednesday.

Attractive Chinese products also include the VU-4 unmanned ground combat vehicle and AR3 modularized long-range rocket system from NORINCO.

Weapons and equipment in these categories have gained public attention, as they were deployed in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, observers said.

The deal for the L15 trainer jet with the UAE could just be the beginning, and Arab countries could further enhance defense cooperation with China and procure more Chinese defense products in order to balance US hegemonic influences, analysts said.