China has long held a distinct advantage in the field of competitive intelligence, with its enormous edge in population. This enables the People’s Republic to penetrate anywhere with a substantial ethnic Chinese population bloc with consummate ease, either by offering substantial amounts of money to potential allies or threatening to crack down on reluctant collaborators.
The Chinese have an ancient drive toward ethnic unity, and they do not accept the division of their people into tribes or clans. The current dictator, Xi, regards this unity in racial terms. He believes that all Chinese share common characteristics, wherever they are born or raised. Hence Xi believes that all Chinese owe obeisance to the rule of China itself.
It was no great surprise, then, when the United States discovered China at the heart of an espionage ring in the United Arab Emirates. The U.A.E. is one of the closest United States allies in the Middle East and has long manufactured American weapons and ammunition parts, but until recently there were only suspicions, not facts, to support the suspicions. So far as Washington could tell, the U.A.E. was unaware of the military content of the Chinese project. So far as Washington could tell, the U.A.E. was unaware of the suspicions. As the Wall Street Journal put the matter recently, the Middle East increasingly appears to be a primary ground for U.S.-Chinese competition.
The Chinese effort to penetrate the U.A.E. began like many of its previous espionage ventures, with considerable investment. They apparently hoped to expand their outreach into directly manufacturing American equipment. But their plot was discovered by American counter-espionage in time to prevent its fulfillment, and the plot was foiled.
The Chinese had previously started their military expansion in Djibouti in 2017 to facilitate their operations in the Indian Ocean area. Two years later, the Chinese signed a secret agreement to use a naval base, and in recent years they have expanded their outreach to include Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and the operation in the U.A.E. was to round off the effort. The U.S. uncovered the Chinese operation thanks to satellite photography of the port area, and undertook to convince the Emiratis that the Chinese were up to no good. The Emiratis were willing to be convinced, and a month ago a top U.A.E. official lamented that his country was very worried that a new Cold War might be in the offing, and did not wish to make a choice between two sides.
This is the first time I know of that the Biden Administration has prevailed over the Chinese, and it is significant that the instrument for this victory was photography from outer space. The Chinese have long worked to equal America’s space arm, but the evidence from the U.A.E. adventure suggests they have failed. They have seemingly failed both to disguise their intentions and to conceal their methods. Top American officials apparently had the matter unraveled by the end of September, when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan traveled to the Emirates along with top White House aide Brett McGurk and intensely debriefed the Emiratis. Other debriefings have followed, including a second trip by McGurk to meet with the Crown Prince, and carry out an inspection of the site. This visit led to the apparent cancellation of the Chinese deal.
No one can forecast accurately what the competition will look like over the coming near term, nor what blunders one side or the other will commit, but the events of the past few months have indicated the possibility of an abrupt change. The U.A.E. adventure represents a potential giant step along that path.