The United States could be using F-35 fighter jets as a leverage to force the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) to replace Huawei Technologies Co from its telecommunications network.
The Biden administration wants the U.A.E. to remove Huawei equipment from its networks within the next four years before it is scheduled to get the F-35 in 2026 or 2027, Bloomberg reported citing sources.
The U.S. however, has provided no evidence linking Huawei with alleged spying. This has sparked protests by China that the crackdown on the Chinese telecom giant is part of the Pentagon’s economic warfare to contain China. Besides, it must be noted that the Biden administration has given no indication as to when $23 billion deal to sell F-35, drones and armaments to Abu Dhabi will be approved.
Emirati officials have countered that they’d need longer plus an alternative that’s as affordable -- opening up new opportunities for Samsung Electronics Co., Ericsson AB or Nokia Oyj.
The Middle East, China and U.S. Fear
The U.S. has, for long, been wary of China’s growing influence in the Middle East and has warned allies to preempt any Chinese plans for bases in the region. By scaling back its military presence across the region, it has risked giving China and Russia a chance to fill the gap and expand their influence around the Gulf.
“The Middle East writ broadly is an area of intense competition between the great powers. And I think that as we adjust our posture in the region, Russia and China will be looking very closely to see if a vacuum opens that they can exploit. I think they see the United States shifting posture to look at other parts of the world and they sense there may be an opportunity there,” Head of U.S. Central Command.Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr. told reporters last month.
Several people familiar with the situation told Bloomberg that Trump administration officials had persuaded Emirati officials to replace Huawei arguing that its 5G equipment may be used to spy for the Chinese government.
“The Biden-Harris administration views 5G security as a high priority,” Stephen Anderson, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for international communications and information policy, said in a statement. “The United States is working with allies and partners to support a diverse supply chain of trustworthy telecommunications equipment and services.”
Although the F-35 jet’s communications networks are considered relatively safe from Chinese eavesdropping, Huawei’s presence in the Emirates’ commercial networks could potentially allow China to spy on pilots, contractors and others at the bases where the F-35 would be located. America is also concerned about China stealing its drone technology since the U.A.E. is also seeking MQ-9 drones.
For the U.S., the balance is delicate: The U.A.E. plays an important role in the region and was a leading mover behind the Abraham Accords that normalized ties with Israel. But pressuring Emirati leaders too much over Huawei risks pushing the U.A.E. -- and other nations -- further into China’s arms.
China was the U.A.E.’s top trade partner in 2020 with $53.67 billion in total trade, more than double what it had with the U.S.
Huawei is the U.A.E.'s partner company for its 5G network launch in a deal announced in 2019. At the time, U.A.E. telecom operator Etisalat disclosed Huawei's plans of building 300 5G towers in six months, ahead of Dubai hosting Expo 2020. In addition, Huawei posted a chief security officer to the U.A.E. in 2020 to work with the Gulf state on cybersecurity and set up smart cities.
Aloysius Cheang, Huawei’s CSO for the U.A.E., said last week that the company was working with various government entities to establish the U.A.E. as a “globally trusted digital oasis” that is safe from potential cyber threats. “The cyber threat landscape is continuously changing ... it knows no borders. Every day is a new challenge, it will hit you without you even knowing it ... like what happened with [the] SolarWinds and Colonial Pipeline breaches,” Cheang said.
Sanctions Against U.A.E. and China too?
The U.S. previously cut off Turkey as a buyer and parts supplier for the F-35 after it bought S-400 missile defense systems from U.S. adversary Russia. It even denied selling these jets to Ankara and slapped sanctions under Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for buying the equipment.
Washington has already restricted weapons exports to Abu Dhabi for its involvement in the Yemen war. It has also sanctioned Huawei, China’s biggest tech firm.
In an internal memo seen by Reuters last month, Ren Zhengfei, Founder of Huawei, said the company is focusing on software because future development in the field is fundamentally "outside of U.S. control and we will have greater independence and autonomy".
Huawei was put on an export blacklist by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019 and barred from accessing critical U.S.-origin technology, impeding its ability to design its own chips and source components from outside vendors. The blacklist also barred Google from providing technical support to new Huawei phone models and access to Google Mobile Services, the bundle of developer services upon which most Android apps are based.
As it will be hard for Huawei to produce advanced hardware in the short term, it should focus on building software ecosystems, such as its HarmonyOS operating system, its cloud AI system Mindspore, and other IT products, the note said.