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    Greater China
     Dec 6, 2012


SPEAKING FREELY
China to rule the seas - unmanned
By Elizabeth Van Wie Davis and Margaret Albert

In the cold blue waters between China and Japan, a Chinese fishing craft collided with two Japanese coast guard patrol boats near the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and the Senkaku Islands in Japan. Following the collision on September 7, 2010, coastguards boarded the trawler and arrested the Chinese crew and captain. Following the incident, anti-Japanese protests were held in many Chinese cities, Chinese tour groups visiting Japan were recalled, and a decision was made to suspend the export of rare earths to Japan. [1]

The strength of reaction in this seemingly small-scale maritime accident is a symptom of a deeply rooted conflict. The islands

 

occupy a sensitive position in China-Japan relations - they were first seized by Japan in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5, with the annexation of Taiwan and Korea, followed by the invasion of China by Japan in the 1930s. [2]

The conflict continued as the waters were filled with ships again in October 2012, this time naval ships. The Chinese Navy's East Sea Fleet and civilian maritime patrol agencies conducted their annual joint maneuvers simulating a situation where Japanese law enforcement vessels obstruct and interfere with Chinese maritime surveillance and fisheries administration vessels. The simulated scenario included a collision in which the Chinese ships are damaged and personnel are hurt and fall into the water, requiring further support of a frigate, a hospital ship, a tugboat, advanced fighters and helicopters for support, cover and emergency rescue. [3]

Advance in time to just a few short years later: it is 2015, and drones are returning to special unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) bases, crossing disputed national airspace while surveying activity around the respective islands. [4] The searching multispectral sensor scopes the waters for signs of civilian and military activity near the territories. Tensions heighten due to the ever-present, ever-watching, barely seen spots in the sky.

These scenarios give context to China's recently declared intention to deploy marine surveillance drones to track activity around the archipelagos - an action that may set a precedent for dealing with controversial, disputed territories throughout the region. China's use of drones facilitates an old strategy of perception politics that helps enforce its territorial claims over disputed islands. Drones also expand China's regional military power as they induce broad, invasive footprints of surveillance. Additionally, drones reduce the necessity of maintaining diplomatic sensitivity because they are a dehumanizing tool that further distances surveyors and objects of surveillance, the bullet and the target.

China is developing civilian and military varieties of drone technologies as part of a strategy to "accelerate its transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defense operations, and to increase its capabilities for carrying out reconnaissance... " [5] The PLA Air Force is investing in long-range reconnaissance and armed drones, [6] and at a pace and lack of transparency disturbing to regional and US military interests. In 2010, China revealed nearly 25 different models of drones at the Zhuhai air show - whereas reports indicate that two years earlier China had displayed only a few models. [7]

The expansion of indigenous drone technology results from US intervention in the early 2000s, when the US leaned on Israel to stop exports of the Harpy UAV to China in response to Taiwanese concerns that the nearly 100 drones would threaten the island's security. [8] At this year's Zhuhai air show, the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp (CASIC) revealed six new drone models (military and civilian), and Aviation Industry Corp of China marketed an armed Wing Loong UAV. [9]

With future estimates of the value of the Chinese drone industry reaching the billions of dollars, [10] China's rapid development of drone technology is coalescing with regional development into a near future of persistent drone use within Asia. [11] One study conducted by the Teal Group Corporation projects that the Asia-Pacific market for drones may exceed US$8.6 billion, with the number of drones near 7,552 over the next decade. [12] While drones require state investment, Southeast Asia is catching up in the race for drone technology.

And the gods of war flash mischievous grins anew - the emerging drone market in China and broader Asia is an early sign that past intermittent tensions in the region may evolve into persistent conflict.

In past flare-ups between China and Japan over the uninhabited island territories, the tension is perpetuated by nationalist activist groups from the respective states provoking action from the opposing militaries. As the earlier narratives indicated, the flare-up occurs, states rekindle power-flexing rhetoric and economic threats, but eventually tensions dwindle to a smolder, with the parties returning to their corners. And the islands remain relatively non-governmental territories. But, when China begins actively deploying drones for constant surveillance over the islands, China will effectively be establishing territorial domination as a persistent military presence that represents a shift to territorial sovereignty.

The final piece of drone-induced power politics is the dehumanizing nature of drones. Drones are a paradigm-shifting weapon that relax the perceived need for multi-perspective dialogue. Drones create social distance by facilitating dehumanization of opposing parties: they reduce the mutual risk of human cost in both surveillance and strike operations.

British Army officer and former drone operator James Jeffrey, who piloted drone operations in Afghanistan, described the dehumanization that drones facilitate:
"It [drones] makes it [attacks] a lot more acceptable, a lot more palatable; it's on a computer screen... within 10 minutes you've forgotten that it happened and you've moved on. You dehumanize the enemy further, which always happens in war, but it takes it to another... degree." [13]
As dehumanization and increasing social distance become ingratiated in the international relations culture - on a regional and global level - the incentive to understand alternative parties' perspectives diminishes rapidly.

Prior incidents of territorial clashes over the East China Sea islands have generally been characterized by face-to-face encounters with the 'opposition', but future drone activity escalates the potential for perpetual war and reduces the quality of security. Conflict actors may long for the peaceful tension of years past when adversaries had to physically engage with the persons that opposed them.

All factors combined, the subtle shift from human engagement to machines in Asia enhances a perception of China's territorial sovereignty in various arenas of regional disputes, which may lead to a path to perpetual conflict.

And, while it is difficult to accurately predict the consequences of evolving drone activity, it is necessary to explore the potential uses and ramifications of drones. Asia's drone development and proposed future drone use are a signal to governments and societies that a brave new world is fast approaching of Platonic perception politics, surveillance and military conflict. The 'winners' in that world will be those able to adapt the new politics and technology to specific power goals. Today, China looks to be a winner.

Notes:
1. Joyman Lee, Senkaku/Diaoyu: Islands of Conflict, History Today, Volume: 61, Issue: 5 2011.
2. In 1972, Zhou Enlai and Takeiri Yoshikazu (leader of the Komeito party) appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Diaoyu Islands in talks that would be held to normalize relations between the two countries. Apparently, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told Japan's Takeiri, "There is no need to mention the Diaoyu Islands. It does not count a problem of any sort compared to recovering normal relations [between the two countries]." From China's point of view, the decision not to discuss the dispute at the time was a recognition that a dispute did exist. Similarly, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping and the Japanese Foreign Minister also appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Diaoyu Islands at a later time, with Deng stating, "It's not that China and Japan do not have any problems. For example [there are] the Diaoyu Island and continental shelf issues. Don't drag them in now, they can be set aside to be calmly discussed later and we can slowly reach a way that both sides can accept. If our generation cannot find a way, the next generation or the one after that will find a way." See M. Taylor Fravel, Something to Talk About in the East China Sea, The Diplomat: China Power, September 28, 2012.
3. Kathrin Hille, Chinese navy on exercise near Senkakus, Financial Times, October 19, 2012.
4. Lu Hui, China to deploy drones for marine surveillance, Xinhua, August 29, 2012.
5. China's National Defense in 2008: VI. The Air Force," Official Publications, Chinese Government's Official Web Portal.
6. Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2010, Annual Report to Congress, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 33.
7. Jeremy Page, China's New Drones Raise Eyebrows, The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2010.
8. Scott Wilson, Israel Set to End China Arms Deal Under US Pressure, The Washington Post June 27, 2005.
9. Jasmine Wang, China Drone Maker Expects to Double Sales on Islands Dispute, Bloomberg News, November 15, 2012.
10. Ibid.
11. South Korea is developing a "kamikaze" drone called the Devil Killer, a 55-pound (25-kilogram) UAV that is pre-programmed to hit specific targets - a technology that some reports have indicated is being simultaneously developed in North Korea. The Devil Killer is slated to be operational in 2015. Daniel Miller, South Korea developing kamikaze-style drone that dive bombs the enemy at 250mph, Daily Mail, October 11, 2012.
12. World Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems, Teal Group Corporation, 2012. Interview with Philip Finnegan, Teal Group Director of Corporate Analysis, November 19, 2012, 10 am.
13. 'Too easy': Ex-drone operator on watching civilians die, BBC News, October 5, 2012.


Dr Elizabeth Van Wie Davis has lived and worked in Asia for many years. Her fourth book, Ruling, Religion and Resources in China, was published in November, 2012.

Margaret Albert is completing her Masters in International Political Economy of Resources at the Colorado School of Mines.

(Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Van Wie Davis and Margaret Albert.)





Drones take South China Sea plunge
(Aug 29, '12)

Coming soon: a drone for all theaters (Jul 20, '12)

 

 
 



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