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What’s Behind China’s Big New Drone Deal?

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Asia Defense

What’s Behind China’s Big New Drone Deal?

A closer look at a drone-fueled courtship between China and Saudi Arabia.

When China recently revealed it had secured the “biggest overseas purchase order” in the history of Chinese foreign drone sales, it did so in mysterious fashion — by withholding both the value of the sale and the recipient of the arms.

The peculiarly offhand, one-sentence announcement belied the gravity of the deal, now reported as either a notable 30 or an unparalleled 300 Wing-Loong II attack drones to be sold to Saudi Arabia. Quickly following this revelation, it was more widely circulated that an agreement to establish a Saudi Arabian production line for China’s comparatively powerful CH-4 reconnaissance drone had also been secured.

This drone-fueled courtship emerged with a speed and subtlety that has obscured its full scale. Yet, make no mistake — the sudden, momentous drone diplomacy established between Beijing and Riyadh since February raises the stakes of present and future conflict in the Middle East.

A China-Made Drone Power

Consecutive drone deals between China and Saudi Arabia found their origins in part within the strict export policies of the previous U.S. administration on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which limited sales based on human rights records and made trade with Riyadh unlikely. Of equal influence was price, with Chinese drones estimated to be far cheaper than U.S. models.

To place the sale into context, the latest official statistics indicate that the U.S. Air Force operates 93 MQ-9 Reaper drones — the armed model most comparable to those reported in the Sino-Saudi deal, and the most integral component of the Pentagon’s unmanned strike capability.

Of course, the United States operates various other armed UAVs in impressive quantities. However, those forces must be viewed in light of Washington’s global scale of operations. For Saudi Arabia, purchasing at minimum the equivalent of a third of the U.S. Reaper fleet — and potentially even surpassing it altogether — entails a substantial leap in military power. Compounding this further, Saudi Arabia has already secured several strike-capable CH-4 and first-generation Wing Loong drones from Beijing — and will only expand its Chinese-made drone fleet through the incoming CH-4 factory, which can also provide after-sales servicing.

Altered Middle East Dynamics

Where, how, and to what extent Saudi Arabia’s soon expanding, China-made drone fleet will be deployed is thus now a variable in Middle East geopolitics that cannot be ignored. Yet, eclipsing this development is an even greater concern — that Sino-Saudi drone diplomacy accelerates the proliferation of strike-capable drones to other Middle Eastern countries.

Undoubtedly, the strategic interests behind China’s drone-focused deals surpass mere bilateral growth with Riyadh, targeting other Middle Eastern states seeking entry into the exclusive club of armed drone powers. States in the Middle East will now be more inclined to obtain weaponized UAVs as a measure of balancing military capabilities with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Chinese drones will be an attractive buy given the newfound accessibility to UAV repairs, parts, and related armaments that a regional manufacturing hub will provide.

From a purely tactical angle, this may benefit China — at least initially. Middle East drone proliferation will likely better empower states to combat the violent non-state actors in the region and offer protection to citizens as well as infrastructure. This includes protection of the increasing economic assets China has dotted across the Middle East, without forcing Beijing to forgo its historically beneficial policy of non-intervention.

Strategically, however, the already tumultuous region will be at greater risk of escalated conflict, both due to the higher odds of unintended casualties and the greater military power afforded to previously weaker states. As broader studies of drone use have already indicated, regional power dynamics will shift — and shifts create destabilization.

This is particularly true when considering the suddenness of drone proliferation in the Middle East that may follow China’s provision of local, affordable UAVs. Countries that seek to capitalize on the new convenience of Chinese drones may be emboldened to participate more actively in current and future conflicts. An immediate example of this may manifest as increased Saudi activity in the Syrian conflict — where Riyadh has modestly supported U.S.-led airstrikes with piloted aircraft, but may now conduct bombings more frequently given the removal of personnel risks seen with unmanned vehicles.

While such strikes are unsurprising granted the atrocities committed by both the Islamic State and the Assad regime, lowering the threshold for military conflict is a concerning turn for the already war-torn Middle East. The same lowered threshold will apply to the strategic calculus of any Middle Eastern state that decides to purchase the soon readily available Chinese UAVs.

Such a development may lead to scenarios that more easily segue into wars which, though started by drones, end with often devastating human consequences. Extra-regional actors, such as the United States and Russia, will also take on greater risk of conflict as their already precarious efforts in the Middle East continue onward into battlefields flush with China-made drones.

And yet, Chinese efforts to lock down the Middle Eastern drone market have only opened the door to armed UAV exports. Late last month, the United States eased restrictions on arms exports that had previously limited sales to many Middle Eastern states. As a growing power in the region, China will therefore increasingly operate in a Middle East strategic environment of its own creation — with swelling numbers of armed drones and dropping thresholds for war.

Ian Armstrong is the Geostrategy & Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also a compliance contractor at the Department of Defense, as well as a Senior Analyst and Commissioning Editor at Global Risk Insights. Ian earned his BA in Political Science from Temple University in 2015.