Asia Defense

Is China Establishing a Norm Prohibiting Lethal Drone Strikes in Asia?

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Asia Defense

Is China Establishing a Norm Prohibiting Lethal Drone Strikes in Asia?

China — unlike the U.S. — has so far refused to use UAVs to conduct targeted killings.

Is China Establishing a Norm Prohibiting Lethal Drone Strikes in Asia?
Credit: General Atomics Aeronautical

The practice of targeted killings — the use of weaponized drones (UCAVs) against security threats such as suspected and known terrorists, insurgents, and criminal operatives — has proliferated globally and the tactic is becoming increasingly accepted, and used by a multitude of actors. Whereas for a long period it was foremost the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel as the only nations that used drones for offensive purposes, this club has recently rapidly enlarged.

Over the past several years Iraq (against the Islamic State/ISIS), Nigeria (against Boko Haram), Pakistan (against members of the jihadist militant organizations al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani Network, Terhik-i-Taliban [TTP], and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, among others) have targeted terrorists with weaponized drones. In this, it seems the unmanned revolution and the use of such systems for offensive purposes is slowly becoming an accepted norm.

Over the past decade the practice of targeted killings has been a topic of fierce debate worldwide. NGOs, policymakers, military leaders and ground staff, diplomats, the men and women involved in UCAVs operations, and those at receiving end of the missiles — all had a voice in this debate. Although much of this debate still takes pace, it seems nevertheless that the discussion has been muted to some degree. When those “newer” states joined the drone club, the response and the ensuing debate was fairly limited, though Israel originally drew criticism from the U.S. over its targeted killings policy, until al-Qaeda delivered its lethal strikes against the U.S. homeland. After 9/11 the United States made drone strikes a seminal feature of its counterterrorism program. Though contested, the program attracted many champions and the U.S., as a norm entrepreneur in this, expanded its actions and practices. Other states have follow suit.

This chain of events raises questions about the proliferation of unmanned systems and unmanned armed systems, including the question of whether the practice of targeted killing could become a globally accepted norm. The proliferation of drone technology itself has been a rapid one. Well over 70 actors (state and non-state, including Hezbollah) have or are developing unmanned capabilities. Of these, 13 have armed “unmanned” capabilities, with another 11 developing armed unmanned systems. The last two numbers indicate that the number of drone striking nations could increase further, particularly as the practice of targeted killing is becoming less controversial.

However, whereas the use of unmanned armed drones for offensive purposes has proliferated through U.S. security policy in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, the norm has yet to take hold in East Asia. To date regionally, drone strikes have taken place only in the Philippines, against Aby Sayaaf targets, with those operations conducted by the U.S. as part of the larger CIA anti-terror campaign.

This is an interesting development for a region in which security tensions seem to be growing every month, and in which strong anti-terror operations are taking place in places like Southern Thailand, Indonesia, western China (i.e., Xinjiang and Yunnan), Myanmar, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and India. In addition, the majority of the states conducting counterterror operations have not shied away from using violence and have comparably poor human rights records.

As our prior article pointed out, the rise and proliferation of drones, weaponized and not, in East Asia has significantly progressed, and many of the actors named above have unmanned armed capabilities, or will have them relatively soon. The most interesting actor in this regard has been China – a least likely case when it comes to a state resisting the use of lethal drone strikes. Its counterterrorism policies have been strict, with its first comprehensive anti-terrorism bill passed in late 2015; it has illustrated repeatedly with regards to internal security matters that global opinion is of little concern; and it has been vocal about the need to destroy its home-grown terrorists. In 2013, China considered using drones to strike at a high-ranking Burmese drug- and warlord but chose to capture the target rather than eliminating him using unmanned weapon systems.

Despite the rise in numbers of Chinese drug smugglers and Beijing’s fight against terrorism and insurgents, and although China possesses advanced weaponized drone technology, the country has not moved down the same path as the U.S., U.K., Israel and the other more recent members of the drone club in its lethal drone use. Therefore, China can be seen as a norm-entrepreneur and champion in the region, laying the groundwork for a norm prohibiting the use of targeted killing via unmanned drones. Moreover, this norm against targeted killing contrasts with the norm prescribing targeted killing that is being created by the U.S. and its close allies. Other countries in Southeast Asia are acquiring weaponized drone technology but have also so far resisted the direction of use alongside China, and therefore also play a role in establishing a “no-kill” precedent that is finding regional acceptance.

China’s norm-setting behavior raises eyebrows, as the latest members of the drone strikes club have all used Chinese-made drones (CH-3), eagerly exported by Chinese weapon manufactures, with the government’s blessing. As such, it should not be expected that China’s norm-setting behavior is a strict given. As Shannon Tiezzi pointed out recently, China has been actively using drones for ISR purposes in the Xinjiang region where China is feeling its ISIS woes the most, enabling it to follow and track terrorists. From there it would be a small step to evolve into armed drone strikes, meaning there is a profound possibility that China could not follow up on its current norm-setting behavior. This in a turn could give other regional actors, involved in their own counterterror operations, room to follow China’s example, following the argument if China did, we have the same rights too.

As much as targeted killings could become a common practice, and gain acceptance in the region, it would be foremost within national borders. Given China’s commitment to non-intervention in the region, a drone policy, in which China would strike at will against targets abroad would contradict much of its foreign policy and stated goals. It is therefore not likely they will deploy drones in offensive operations beyond its own borders. Still, China has resisted the use of drones within its border as well.

Nevertheless, a great deal of ambiguity will remain in the near future if East Asia remains a region free of targeted killings, particularly given the rise of new and growing terrorist and insurgency challenges in such an expansive geographical locale. After years of the U.S., the U.K., and Israel targeting top militants and terrorist leaders, it is a wonder why China has yet to use weaponized drones against a drug lord blamed for killing 13 Chinese soldiers, or against terrorist elements in its western provinces. While opposing the use of lethal drones strikes within and beyond Chinese territory gives China a large slice of the moral high ground in international affairs, becoming a norm entrepreneur by establishing a norm prohibiting the use of armed and illegal drone strikes makes China a moral actor in the “Global War on Terror” and the future of robotic conflict and warfare.

Tobias Burgers is a Doctoral Student at Otto-Suhr-Institute, Free University Berlin and formerly a Visiting Researcher at CSS, NCCU, Taipei, Taiwan.

Scott N. Romaniuk is a Doctoral Student at the School of International Studies, University of Trento and a Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Targeted Killing, University of Massachusetts (Dartmouth), US.