Unmanned systems have become the legal and ethical problem child of the global defense industry and the governments they supply, rewriting the rules of military engagement in ways that many find disturbing. And this sense of unease about where we’re headed is hardly unfamiliar. Much like the emergence of drone technology, the rise of China and its reshaping of the geopolitical landscape has stirred up a sometimes understandable, sometimes irrational, fear of the unknown.
It’s safe to say, then, that Chinese drones conjure up a particularly intense sense of alarm that the media has begun to embrace as a license to panic. China is indeed developing a range of unmanned aerial vehicles/systems (UAVs/UASs) at a time when relations with Japan are tense, and when those with the U.S. are delicate. But that hardly justifies claims that “drones have taken center stage in an escalating arms race between China and Japan,” or that the “China drone threat highlights [a] new global arms race,” as some observers would have it. This hyperbole was perhaps fed by a 2012 U.S. Department of Defense report which described China’s development of UAVs as "alarming."
That’s quite unreasonable. All of the world’s advanced militaries are adopting drones, not just the PLA. That isn’t an arms race, or a reason to fear China, it’s just the direction in which defense technology is naturally progressing. Secondly, while China may be demonstrating impressive advances, Israel and the U.S. retain a substantial lead in the UAV field, with China—alongside Europe, India and Russia— still in the second tier. And thirdly, China is modernizing in all areas of military technology – unmanned systems being no exception.
New unmanned missions
Nonetheless, China has started to show its hand in terms of the roles that it expects its growing fleet of UAVs to fulfill. In a clear indication that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an operational armed UAV capability in which it feels relatively confident, last week reports of a plan to send a UAV into Myanmar to assassinate a drug trafficker who had murdered 13 Chinese nationals came to light. The Chinese government ultimately rejected this tactic, but it is evidently tempted to follow Washington’s lead in reserving the right to use UAVs to target enemies of the state, even on foreign soil.
Territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea have also persuaded Beijing to accelerate its deployment of UAVs, which are ideally suited to maritime surveillance missions. UAVs are already used routinely to monitor the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, a PLA general recently claimed. “[Both China and Japan] seem intent on establishing more presence in these disputed zones,” comments Peter Singer, Director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution,“both to establish their own claims … and to watch what the other is doing. UAS are helpful in those aims, especially with their longer duration versus traditional manned platforms.” The PLA Air Force has also converted its obsolete J-6 fighters into UAVs; based in Fujian, the J-6s are apparently being used for Diaoyu surveillance, as well as being expendable strike assets in the event of an armed engagement.
Nor is China’s deployment of UAVs limited to the military realm. The government of Liaoning Province is reportedly using UAVs to monitor the North Korean border, and is also said to be establishing two coastal UAV bases from which it will oversee its areas of jurisdiction in the Yellow Sea and the Bohai Gulf. Meanwhile, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) – one of China’s main maritime agencies – announced in August that it is setting up 11 UAV bases, one in each of China’s coastal provinces. It expects to have these bases up and running by 2015 (images of some of the SOA’s current UAVs can be seen here). It’s also worth recalling that all of China’s UAV advances have been enabled by the Beidou satellite constellation, which now includes 16 active satellites providing coverage across China and the Asia-Pacific.