Here Come...China's Drones
Image Credit: Ministry of National Defense: People's Republic of China

Here Come...China's Drones


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.

Wandering Ronin
January 5, 2014 at 01:36

If China’s grand strategy is world domination why would they sell technology to anyone? They will first try and reclaim North Korea for strength against Japan. When they start harassing Japan, the U.S. will become involved. China will then branch off stirring trouble with South Korea which will further drive U.S. in.
China is aggressive now with ADIZ and Cowpens incident not to show off nerves to Japan and U.S. but also as a show for Kim in North Korea. The Chinese have already implemented the phase of weakening NK playing mind games with Kim who is unstable and undisciplined, they are using him as a tool.

Wandering Ronin
January 5, 2014 at 08:20

i.e. proliferation will only occur after China has amassed enough drones to use on neighboring countries gaining intelligence for precision later to their gains, then they will try and sell technology to Middle Eastern uprising countries.

Wandering Ronin
January 5, 2014 at 09:13

Apologies, I mean Muslim African uprising nations, where railways and other infrastructure and mining in Africa is taking place with China and North Korea’s help.

Matthew Hall
January 4, 2014 at 23:50

Gee, they look awfully familiar.
is theft viewed negatively in Chinese tradition?

May 12, 2013 at 20:34

I agree, the CIA trolls are everywhere, but the worst part is, they think that if they lie more than once, people will believe or let themselves be manipulated by them.


No one trust the US BS any more, your hegemony is over, and it really didn't last that long. The old world and old civilisations are taking over once again, regaining their righteous place in the course of history – by peace – unlike the war mongering west, who's allies are shrinking in numbers rapidly.


Soon there will only be US and Israel against the rest. Good luck.

Matthew hall
January 4, 2014 at 23:55

there are a lot of mentally ill people with Internet access aren’t there.

Matthew Hall
January 5, 2014 at 02:19

The CCP trolls are everywhere too!

April 20, 2013 at 05:07

Your comment disproves your logic.

[...] The Diplomat – Here Come…China’s Drones [...]

[...] – particularly with regard to the issue of proliferation – as this more balanced piece on the Chinese development of drones shows. However for a US think-tank to argue that the Chinese development of drones poses a risk to [...]

Talha Zaheer
March 23, 2013 at 08:55

Welcome to the world of Zionists :)

March 18, 2013 at 18:29

[...] particularly with regard to the issue of proliferation – as this more balanced piece on the Chinese development of drones shows.  However for a US think-tank to argue that the Chinese development of drones poses a risk [...]

[...] Tosiasia on, että lennokki-iskut ovat tulleet jäädäkseen – ainakin siihen asti kunnes aseellisten konfliktien luonne muuttuu sellaiseksi, ettei lennokki-iskuille enää ole tarvetta tai siihen asti että lennokkien tilalle tulee toinen, parempi teknologia. Maat, joilla on lennokkeja, lasketaan useissa kymmenissä (täältä näkee millaiset lennokkivarastot yhdellätoista maalla oli viime vuonna). Ne, joilla lennokkeja on, tulevat laajentamaan lennokkiohjelmiaan: vuosikymmenessä Yhdysvaltain lennokkilaivueen määrä on noussut muutamasta kymmenestä useisiin tuhansiin, ja lennokki-yhteensopivien tukikohtien määrä on myös kasvanut. Iso-Britannia suunnittelee osittain korvaamassa Tornado-sotilaslentokoneitaan lennokeilla. Ja vaikka tähän mennessä pelkästään kolme valtiota (Iso-Britannia, Israel ja Yhdysvallat) ovat käyttäneet aseistettuja lennokki-iskuja,  tämä luku – kuten myös lennokeilla varustettujen maiden määrä – tulee kasvamaan seuraavan vuosikymmenen aikana. Raporttien mukaan tämän vuoden alussa Kiina harkitsi lennokki-iskun suorittamista omassa ”huumesodassaan” Burman aluella (lennokit näyttelevät yhä suurempaa osaa myös Itä-Kiinan merellä), ja maan teollisuus on kehittämässä lennokkeja sen omiin tarkoituksiin sekä globaaleille markkinoill…. [...]

Lauren Garza
March 11, 2013 at 13:53

At least we know that China will not be weighed down with those concerns about using drone strikes on their own citizens inside China.

March 10, 2013 at 02:46

Exactly, it terms of average income per household China is way behind.

March 8, 2013 at 20:28

How come when I make a non pro-U.S. or non pro-Israel comments it does not get posted?

[...] Here come…China’s drones (Diplomat) [...]

March 5, 2013 at 20:20

but in the new age: made in China

Choi Inn-wu
March 5, 2013 at 19:34

You American CIA trolls are just like the proverbial wolf – When you can't get the grapes, you say it is probably sour.  Sore losers thats what you are.   When the US develops drones or any other killing machine or bombs, it is perfectly ok.  When other countries does it, it is "alarming" and "dangerous".  The US political and governmental machine is such a hypocrite and a sore loser.

Hey Mr Barrack Caesar, when are you going to rein in your hate machines called the internet trolls whom you have funded to spready filthy lies and racism all over the planet?  If no action from you, I think you should return the Nobel Peace Prize.  You are the most underserving awardee I have ever come across!



Kim's Uncle
March 5, 2013 at 18:36

It’s funny how scared the Chinese are with the Japanese even though Japanese today are civilized and democratic but the ghost of imperial Japan still haunts the fragile psyche of the Chinese.

Instead of moving on and let go of the past the superstitious Chinese still live in the past!

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