News / Asia

China Drone Threat Highlights New Global Arms Race

The Yilong and Xianglong, two Chinese drone models.
The Yilong and Xianglong, two Chinese drone models.
China's acknowledgment earlier this week that it considered using a drone strike on foreign soil to target a major Burmese drug trafficker wanted in the killings of 13 Chinese sailors highlights Beijing's increasing capacity in unmanned aerial warfare.  It also foreshadows the dangers of a burgeoning global drone race.

Liu Yuejin, director of the Public Security Ministry's anti-drug bureau, told the state-run Global Times newspaper Monday the plan called for bombing drug lord Naw Kham's mountain hideout in northeastern Burma using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to end a months-long manhunt.

China's top drug czar told the newspaper the drone strike option was eventually passed over to try to capture Naw Kham alive, which finally occurred last April in a joint Chinese-Laotian operation. But his comments reveal that China is weighing targeted killings seriously.

Beijing is becoming more willing to project power outside China, moving away from its previous policy of non-interference in international affairs, according to Peter Dutton, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College.

"This is a new change.  This is China behaving more actively in the international sphere to protect its interests beyond its borders than it had in the past," Dutton said.  

Previously, China would have insisted that such interventions "either [take place] in international waters, or have United Nations approval," he said.

Legal ambiguity

For years, the United States, Israel and Britain have dominated the global drone market, and the U.S. is known to have launched armed UAV strikes against foreign targets.

But China has vastly improved its technology of late, unveiling large numbers of new drone models at recent air shows and modernizing its global navigation system, Beidou, to compete with the U.S. Global Positioning System as well as Russian and EU rivals.

The Obama administration has justified drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia by claiming those governments were "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted," according to a recently leaked Justice Department memo.  The leaked "white paper" outlines legal arguments for using drone aircraft to target and kill American citizens abroad who are considered terrorists.

American University Law Professor Stephen Vladeck says Washington needs to be much more specific about its criteria for using armed UAVs, because China and other countries are paying close attention.

"Part of the problem is that because the U.S. government is engaged in what seems like so many drone strikes, and has not exactly been forthcoming about the criteria it uses, it's possible for countries like China to point at the U.S. example and say, 'if they're doing it, so can we,'" Vladeck said.

Proliferation and demand

Another issue is proliferation and skyrocketing demand.  While the United States has traditionally exported unmanned drones to only a few of its closest allies, Chinese companies are now seen as an increasingly reliable and cheap supplier.

Dozens of countries have bought or built their own UAVs, primarily for surveillance, and military planners see them as extremely effective, both for reconnaissance and as weaponized attack vehicles.

"The problem is that this technology is becoming so widely available and so cheap, that I think it is only a matter of time before countries with far smaller militaries, countries with far less responsible regimes, are in a position where they want to use these technologies as well," Vladeck said.

American military contractors have been lobbying the government to loosen export restrictions and tap into foreign markets for unmanned aircraft.

In 2010, U.S.-based General Atomics received approval to sell early, unarmed versions of the Predator drone to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries in the Middle East and Latin America.

Top drone exporter Israel has sold its aircraft to a variety of countries, including Nigeria, India and Russia.

Regional tension

One of the Chinese drones unveiled at the annual Zhuhai air show in November has a range of more than 3,200 kilometers, and the Japanese military recently documented an unmanned vehicle flying near some Chinese naval vessels on a training exercise near Okinawa.

With tensions heating up between the two countries over disputed islands in the South China Sea, Japanese media reports have indicated the new government in Tokyo wants to purchase a small number of advanced U.S. Global Hawk high-altitude surveillance drones.

While both sides claim the unmanned aircraft will be used for reconnaissance, experts warn adding armaments is relatively easy, and the possibility for regional drone clashes cannot be discounted.

Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

You May Like

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Jonathan Huang from: canada
February 23, 2013 12:18 AM
go China go!

by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
February 22, 2013 2:03 PM
The technology of warfare has increased the possibility of fights between UAV's and drones instead of manned fighter jets, to reduce the loss of lives and the cost.

by: CS from: LA
February 22, 2013 2:23 AM
It is fair for China to protect its interests outside or inside its territory, in terms of legal aspect. Coz' the US, a living sample, has been doing so during the past decade. So who is to blamed ?

by: JKF from: Ottawa, Canada
February 21, 2013 11:07 PM
Naw Kham, is probably long gone; advertising that the drug lord will be hit? really does not make any sense.
And the pterodactyl, looks very much like the US drone..copyrights/patent infringements??? It must be part of the internet bounty!
And as far as having China or any one else adhere to a US like drone operational legal framework = utopia.
In Response

by: Peter from: USA
February 23, 2013 12:29 PM
He was arrested by a joint Cambodian and Chinese military forces and sentenced to death already. This article is talking about before he was arrested, China considered using a drone strike to kill him.

by: Samurai from: Japan
February 21, 2013 10:09 PM
What on the earth is PRC thinking about? Do Chinese really want to contest with USA and Westerners? What PRC government has to do now is to protect its nationals against air pollution, which leads many of its nationals to direst distress, to give freedom of speech, and even to feed food to its poor nationals. Never waste precious money in arms race.
In Response

by: Peter from: USA
February 23, 2013 12:31 PM
How about protecting its citizens from drug lords like this guy? So yes, everything is necessary, whether pollution or trade or border safety or national interests.
In Response

by: Ben from: China
February 22, 2013 9:46 PM
No power,no future.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs