China and the Lethal Drone Option

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Jane’s Defense Weekly has a piece on China’s drones this week, analyzing the new design of the Tian Yi unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), manufactured by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC). In the works since 2006, the new Tian Yi appears to be designed with stealth in mind; Jane’s notes modifications to the engines and air intake “are most likely intended to suppress the UAV’s infrared signature.” In addition to the modified Tian Yi, CAC showed off a scaled-down version of its Soar Dragon UAV in November 2013. Jane’s notes that the appearance of two UAVs in quick succession “may indicate they are the PLA’s current development priority for CAC.”

I’ll leave the details of military technology to the professionals over at Jane’s and instead attempt to tackle a question outside Jane’s analysis: what might these drones be used for? In particular, I was intrigued by a question posed by Bill Bishop in his invaluable Sinocism newsletter: what happens if and when China begins making use of armed drones to wage its war on terror – in Xinjiang and possibly beyond?

This is not an idle thought exercise. China has already deployed surveillance drones to Xinjiang to track the movements of suspected terrorists. According to Chinese media reports summarized by the New York Times, drones are being used “on multiple missions round-the-clock” and have already provided intelligence used to either locate or arrest suspects.

While so far these drone missions have been limited to surveillance, that might change in the future. There’s no question that China is focusing on developing armed drones. According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2014 report on China’s military development, of four UAVs confirmed by China to be under development three “are designed to carry weapons: the Xianglong (Soaring Dragon); Yilong (Pterodactyl); Sky Saber; and Lijian, China’s first stealthy flying wing UAV.”

China showcased its armed drones during multilateral anti-terrorism drills held under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last August. According to Xinhua, a drone (the specific model was not clear) participated in live fire drills and “shot off several missiles.” A spokesman from the PLA Air Force said that “the drone, tasked with surveillance, reconnaissance and ground attacks, will play a vital role in fighting against terrorism” (emphasis added).

So: we have Chinese officials approving of the use of attack drones to fight terrorism, combined with a heavy emphasis on the development of armed drones. That’s a recipe for the actual use of combat drones in China’s “war on terror,” which is largely being fought in far-western Xinjiang. Beijing has been steadfast in its resolve to “chase terrorists down like rats” — there’s little reason to believe that the use of armed drones is off the table in that effort. Previously, Chinese analysts argued that traditional security forces did a good enough job combating terror in Xinjiang; drones were viewed as unnecessary and overly expensive. After a spate of deadly terrorist attacks in 2014, that calculus may be changing.

The use of armed drones in Xinjiang would be a nightmare scenario for Uyghur rights activists. Groups like Human Rights Watch and the Uyhgur American Association already claim that Xinjiang police act with little to accountability, meaning innocent civilians are easily shot and posthumously passed off as “terrorists.”  Alim Seytoff, president of the UAA, told the Associated Press that “the use of force by the Chinese security against Uyghurs is really like it’s against foreign enemies… The extrajudicial use of lethal force is rampant.”

Add in drone strikes, where civilian casualties are almost unavoidable, and you have a recipe for a human rights disaster. And as Beijing has likely learned from the way the international community deals with U.S. drone strikes, there are few repercussions for such actions (at least not official political consequences — the creation of a more determined wave of terrorists angry over drone strikes is another story). When deciding whether or not to commit to use armed drones against Uyghur suspects, human rights concerns will be at the bottom of Beijing’s list of pros and cons.

Even more concerning from a foreign policy perspective is the possibility that China might follow in the United States’ footsteps and use drones to carry out lethal strikes against targets located on foreign soil. This would seem to fly in the face of China’s sacred principle of non-interference, but there are strong indications Beijing has already considered taking such an action.

In 2013, Global Times reported that China had a plan to use drones to bomb the hideout of Naw Kham, a wanted drug lord who was holed up on the Mekong River, transitioning between Myanmar and Laos. Chinese police had been frustrated numerous times by local residents and even police covering for their suspect – a situation not unlike that faced by U.S. soldiers attempting to track down terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A lethal drone strike was floated as a real possibility, although ultimately China opted instead to send a taskforce in to capture Naw Kham. Liu Yuejin, the leader of the taskforce, told Global Times that the drone option had been rejected “because the order was to catch him alive.”

A report in The Daily Beast argues that China made that decision after having “observed and processed the torrents of criticism that America has endured over its drone strokes in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.” Beijing thus rejected the idea of a drone strike in favor of capturing Naw Kham and putting him on trial. But that decision was not a foregone conclusion.

Liu Yuejin told Global Times the capture of Naw Kham “sent a clear message around the world that the interests of Chinese citizens overseas and the Chinese State could not be violated.” If Beijing had decided a physical raid was not feasible, for reasons of terrain or distance, drones could easily have been sent in to deliver the same message. To be sure, a lethal drone strike on foreign soil is not an action Beijing would take likely – but given the long-running use of similar measures by the U.S., there is enough political cover in place to allow China to do so.

The possible use of drones on foreign soil is complicated somewhat by the fact that China enjoys a very close relationship with the country that is reported to host the largest number of Chinese terrorists – Pakistan. Beijing would be unlikely to carry out missions on Pakistani soil without Islamabad’s consent, but it is possible that Pakistan might allow Chinese drones strikes against select targets, particularly if Beijing made use of economic or political pressure.

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