Determined to kill or capture a murderous Mekong River drug lord, China’s security forces considered a tactic they had never tried before: calling a drone strike on his remote hideaway deep in the hills of Myanmar.
The attack did not happen — the man was later captured and brought to China for trial — but that authorities were considering such an option cast new light on China’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs) program, which has been percolating quietly for years and now appears to be moving into overdrive. Chinese aerospace firms have developed dozens of drones, many of which have appeared at air shows and military parades, including some that bear an uncanny resemblance to the Predator, Global Hawk and Reaper models used with deadly effect by the US Air Force and the CIA. Analysts say that although China still trails industry leaders thr US and Israel, its technology is maturing rapidly and is on the cusp of being ready for widespread use for surveillance and combat strikes.
“My sense is that China is moving into large-scale deployments of UAVs,” said Ian Easton, co-author of a recent report on Chinese drones for the Project 2049 Institute security think tank.
China’s move into large-scale drone deployment displays its military’s growing sophistication and could challenge US military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. It also could elevate the threat to neighbors with territorial disputes with Beijing, including Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, India and the Philippines. China says its drones are capable of carrying bombs and missiles as well as conducting reconnaissance, potentially turning them into offensive weapons in a border conflict.
China’s increased use of drones also adds to concerns about the lack of internationally recognized standards for drone attacks. The US has widely employed drones as a means of eliminating terror suspects in Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula.
“China is following the precedent set by the US. The thinking is that: ‘If the US can do it, so can we. They’re a big country with security interests and so are we,’” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior fellow at the arms transfers program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden.
“The justification for an attack would be that Beijing too has a responsibility for the safety of its citizens. There needs to be agreement on what the limits are,” he said.
Though China claims its military posture is entirely defensive, its navy and civilian maritime services have engaged in repeated standoffs with ships from other nations in the South China and East China seas. Meanwhile, India says Chinese troops set up camp almost 20km into Indian-claimed territory before agreeing to begin withdrawing on Sunday.
It is not yet known exactly what China’s latest drones are capable of because, like most Chinese equipment, they remain untested in battle. The military and associated aerospace firms have offered little information, although in an interview last month with the Xinhua news agency, Yang Baokui (楊寶奎), chief designer at plane maker COSIC, said Chinese drones were closing the gap, but still needed to progress in half a dozen major areas, from airframe design to digital linkups.
Executives at COSIC and drone makers ASN, Avic and the 611 Institute declined to be interviewed, citing their military links.