China: The Dawn of the Drones

23 May, 2013    ·   3948

Narayani Basu analyses what this development could mean for the future of the country's sovereignty disputes

In April this year, China considered, for the first time, using a drone strike in an attempt to kill a Myanmar drug-lord, wanted for the murder of 13 Chinese sailors. While the plan itself was abandoned, the very consideration of the use of a drone strike highlights China’s increasing advances in unmanned aerial warfare: a technology dominated hitherto by the US and used extensively by the Obama administration for the targeted killing of terrorists.

What could the development of a drone fleet mean for the future of sovereignty disputes between China and countries like Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines?

Chinese Drones: ‘Dragons’ in the Skies
China began to develop drones in the 1960s and is believed to have first used them for reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War of 1979. However, drones as part of a complex Anti-Access Area-Denial (A2AD) strategy began to be developed in the aftermath of the first Gulf War of 1991. Since then, China has been working to develop multiple drone prototypes, ranging from high-altitude, long-endurance designs like the U.S. Global Hawk, to smaller, hand-launched designs like the U.S. Raven. China already has drones that are similar to the U.S Predator and Reaper, respectively called the Yilong/Wing Loong (“Pterodactyl”) and the CH-4. Typically, new designs are unveiled at the Zhuhai Airshow.

While the first drone prototype was introduced at the Zhuhai air-show in 2006, the experimental navigation system used to guide the drones - Beidou - has been in operation since 2000 and has since expanded to 16 satellites, placed over Asia and the Pacific Ocean.  The drone program has had a profound effect on China’s defence industry. Indeed, further developments could see China competing with the world’s two major drone producers, the United States and Israel for markets in Pakistan, Myanmar, and other developing countries.

An Aerial Geo-Strategy
The primary role of China’s growing drone programme is to help Beijing control and monitor disputed territories in the Asia-Pacific region. Put simply, drones help China deter countries from intervening in the area by helping to detect and target potential violators of the areas they are trying to deny. Indeed, Beijing’s deployment of drones near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands impacted Sino-Japanese relations recently, prompting Tokyo to place its own defence programme under review, with the aim of introducing its own drones to patrol the disputed waters by 2015. For China then, drones could act as the ideal surveillance tool in the event of a crisis - a proxy weapon to deter assertive behaviour over territories China considers its own - such as the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands.

China’s move into large-scale drone deployment is a significant indication of its military’s growing sophistication. It could not only challenge American dominance in the Asia-Pacific, but could also elevate the threat to any neighbours with which China has territorial disputes, such as Vietnam, Japan, India or the Philippines. Within China, drones are already patrolling the borders, and a navy drone was deployed to the western province of Sichuan to provide aerial surveillance, in the aftermath of last month’s deadly earthquake.

However, on a wider geopolitical canvas, Chinese drones could be the tipping point for giving the Chinese an edge in possible future disputes in Asia with the US, as American foreign policy continues its rebalancing trends within the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, China has already made it clear that the drones are capable of carrying bombs and missiles as well as conducting reconnaissance missions, potentially turning them into offensive weapons in the event of a border conflict. The thought of armed UAVs patrolling the skies over disputed territories like the Paracel and the Spratly Islands is enough to cause anxiety among ASEAN members, besides greatly enhancing China’s ocean surveillance.

On the other hand, it is equally important to remember that Chinese drones are not yet as sophisticated as their US counterparts in terms of range, hardware, and engines. Official makers COSIC admit that progress is needed in half a dozen major areas, from airframe designs to digital linkups. Secondly, the Chinese drones on display at the Zhuhai Airshow are prototypes and not finished products. Nor have Chinese drones ever been put to military use.

In the light of these facts, it is perhaps safe to say that the Chinese agenda for impact is twofold:  to maintain surveillance over key territories in dispute, and to stoke fears of a UAV race between the US and China, which has already manifested itself - as evidenced by the DSB report - in the top echelons of the Pentagon.