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: 1 Million Somalis at Risk of Hunger

Group warns region is in dire need of humanitarian aid, with at least 200,000 children under age of five acutely malnourished as drought hits southern, central part of nation More

Human Rights Groups Allege Supression of Freedoms in Thailand

Thailand’s military, police have suppressed release of independent report assessing human rights in kingdom during first 100 days of latest coup More

Jennifer Lawrence Contacts FBI After Nude Photos Hacked

'Silver Linings Playbook' actress' photos were posted on image-sharing forum 4chan; Federal Bureau of Investigations is looking into matter 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.
Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forcesi
X
September 02, 2014 12:58 PM
A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Internet, Technology Offer New Tools for Journalists

The Internet and rapidly evolving technology is quickly changing how people receive news and how journalists deliver it. There are now more ways to tell a story than ever before. One school in Los Angeles is teaching the next generation of journalists with the help of a state-of-the-art newsroom. Elizabeth Lee has this report.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.

AppleAndroid