China | China’s drones are going global. So are its drone strikes
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China’s drones are going global. So are its drone strikes

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The United States (US) – most specifically the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – has been identified as the world’s biggest drone user, but not exactly the world’s biggest drone exporter.

In recent years, US dominance of drone warfare has been fading. Whereas for over a decade the US filled the skies with its MQ-1C Gray Eagle and MQ-9 Reapers – as its primary unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), along with hundreds of other smaller surveillance and tactical reconnaissance drones in support of US and allied ground forces – increasingly drones churned out by the People’s Republic of China, such as the CH-3, CH-4, and the latest addition to the CH family, the CH-5, now compete with other class-A products by exporting countries vying and bidding for large chunks of the global drone market.

Today, China occupies one of the top spots as a “deadly drone power,” and shows now signs of abating in its major strides forward in the global drone market. The world has provided no shortage of uses for China’s drones, including countries like Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and other states in the Middle East, the European Union (EU), and possibly the United Nations (UN), which many contend would greatly benefit from a large fleet of surveillance and tactical support drones for its peace and peacekeeping operations.

Much of the surge in China’s drone sales has been the result of restrictive export control exercised by the US government. These restrictions forbid the sale of (armed) drones to nations with a poor human rights record, like Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt, for instance – states that have sought, in the wake of these export controls, to acquire their own unmanned capabilities from somewhere, anywhere.

China, in particular its defense industry, has been keen to fill this gap and Beijing certainly has made a lot of forward movement in this area. Over the past several years, the CH-3 and foremost the CH-4, have become successful exports products, making China one of the world’s leading if not the number one state exporting unmanned weapon systems. Shi Wen of the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics in Beijing identified recent years as a tremendous success stories for drone deals with other nations.

Chinese achievements in this domain has set a precedent for future global unmanned arms sales, with the US now providing new unmanned systems to its major coalition allies, and China providing much of the remaining states in the world with its “killer drones.” China has surpassed Russia, which has traditionally been the arms exporter for states that have not sought to abide by US restrictive human rights export rules.

This leading position raises the paradoxical question: Is China becoming responsible for the global acceptance of the practice of targeted killings via armed drone strikes? This practice, on which Western states – the US, the United Kingdom (UK), and Israel – long held dominance, is becoming an accepted global norm. Within the framework of “counterterrorism” (CT) practice, drone strikes have reached deep into Africa and South East Asia (SEA), and sundry other locations, not considered drone territory.

With no indication that China will halt or limit its drone sales, there is little doubt that states will continue to acquire these systems over time – especially as their price tag of a few million USD makes them far more affordable than ever, particularly for states with limited military budgets looking to get their hands on any drone (i.e., the so-called “poor man’s Predator”) they can. The practice of targeted killings by means of armed drones is rapidly moving beyond its first ring of expansion, and becoming widely practiced as an option to counter any elements that a government deems “terrorist,” a “terrorist threat,” or merely just a “threat.”

With the paradoxical nature of terrorism and CT (fraught with unintended consequences), with expansive interpretations of terrorist and terrorist threats, and with extraordinary tactical successes brought about through drone campaigns, Beijing has every reason to continue treating the sale of its armed drones as a lucrative and economic (even political) relationship-building endeavor far into the future.

China’s expansion by means of private suppliers has also greatly enhanced its position as a drone exporter, heavily leveraging its ability to meet a wide array of customer needs, including private security companies. Drones will continue to fuel the growth of China’s economy for decades to come with reported investments and exports for 2015/2016 having already soared into the hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars range.

Even though Beijing has so far adhered to its norm prohibiting the use of targeted killings, China’s drone exports push an ever-increasing number of drone-striking nations toward the use of weaponized drones as a first-response option in the face of terrorist and insurgent threats within and possibly even beyond their sovereign borders – the idea of an increasing “kill empowerment” across the globe.

Beijing might be able to balance between multiple roles in the interim, however its burgeoning exports inherently contradict its long-lauded posture of non-interference in the security and sovereignty of other states, and is therefore far less sustainable over a much longer period.

*This op-ed piece was co-authored with Tobias J. Burgers.

Tobias J. Burgers is a Doctoral Researcher at the Otto Suhr Institute, Free University Berlin, from which he holds a Master’s in Political Science. His research interests include the impact of cyber and robotic technology on security dynamics, East-Asian security relations, maritime security and the future of conflict. Email: burgers@zedat.fu-berlin.de.

Scott N. Romaniuk
Scott N. Romaniuk is a PhD Researcher in the School of International Studies, University of Trento. He is the Editor of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Modern War (2015) and The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy (2017). His research interests include international relations, security studies, terrorism, and political violence. Email: scott.romaniuk@unitn.it.
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