An unmanned aircraft at a parade in Beijing, October 2009.
David Gray / Courtesy Reuters

Drones, able to dispatch death remotely, without human eyes on their targets or a pilot’s life at stake, make people uncomfortable -- even when they belong to democratic governments that presumably have some limits on using them for ill. (On May 23, in a major speech, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out what some of those limits are.) An even more alarming prospect is that unmanned aircraft will be acquired and deployed by authoritarian regimes, with fewer checks on their use of lethal force.

Those worried about exactly that tend to point their fingers at China. In March, after details emerged that China had considered taking out a drug trafficker in Myanmar (also known as Burma) with a drone strike, a CNN blog post warned, “Today, it’s Myanmar. Tomorrow, it could very well be some other place in Asia or beyond.” Around the same time, a National Journal article entitled “When the Whole World Has Drones” teased out some of the consequences of Beijing’s drone program, asking, “What happens if China arms one of its remote-piloted planes and strikes Philippine or Indian trawlers in the South China Sea?”

Indeed, the time to fret about when China and other authoritarian countries will acquire drones is over: they have them. The question now is when and how they will use them. But as with its other, less exotic military capabilities, Beijing has cleared only a technological hurdle -- and its behavior will continue to be constrained by politics.

China has been developing a drone capacity for over half a century, starting with its reverse engineering of Soviet Lavochkin La-17C target drones that it had received from Moscow in the late 1950s. Today, Beijing’s opacity makes it difficult to gauge the exact scale of the program, but according to Ian Easton, an analyst at the Project 2049 Institute, by 2011 China’s air force alone had over 280 combat drones. In other words, its fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles is already bigger and more sophisticated than all but the United States’; in this relatively new field Beijing is less of a newcomer and more of a fast follower. And the force will only become more effective: the Lijian (“sharp sword” in Chinese), a combat drone in the final stages of development, will make China one of the very few states that have or are building a stealth drone capacity.

This impressive arsenal may tempt China to pull the trigger. The fact that a Chinese official acknowledged that Beijing had considered using drones to eliminate the Burmese drug trafficker, Naw Kham, made clear that it would not be out of the question for China to launch a drone strike in a security operation against a nonstate actor. Meanwhile, as China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors have escalated, there is a chance that Beijing would introduce unmanned aircraft, especially since India, the Philippines, and Vietnam distantly trail China in drone funding and capacity, and would find it difficult to compete. Beijing is already using drones to photograph the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands it disputes with Japan, as the retired Chinese Major General Peng Guangqian revealed earlier this year, and to keep an eye on movements near the North Korean border.

Beijing, however, is unlikely to use its drones lightly. It already faces tremendous criticism from much of the international community for its perceived brazenness in continental and maritime sovereignty disputes. With its leaders attempting to allay notions that China’s rise poses a threat to the region, injecting drones conspicuously into these disputes would prove counterproductive. China also fears setting a precedent for the use of drones in East Asian hotspots that the United States could eventually exploit. For now, Beijing is showing that it understands these risks, and to date it has limited its use of drones in these areas to surveillance, according to recent public statements from China’s Defense Ministry.

What about using drones outside of Chinese-claimed areas? That China did not, in fact, launch a drone strike on the Burmese drug criminal underscores its caution. According to Liu Yuejin, the director of the antidrug bureau in China’s Ministry of Public Security, Beijing considered using a drone carrying a 20-kilogram TNT payload to bomb Kham’s mountain redoubt in northeast Myanmar. Kham had already evaded capture three times, so a drone strike may have seemed to be the best option. The authorities apparently had at least two plans for capturing Kham. The method they ultimately chose was to send Chinese police forces to lead a transnational investigation that ended in April 2012 with Kham’s capture near the Myanmar-Laos border. The ultimate decision to refrain from the strike may reflect both a fear of political reproach and a lack of confidence in untested drones, systems, and operators.

The restrictive position that Beijing takes on sovereignty in international forums will further constrain its use of drones. China is not likely to publicly deploy drones for precision strikes or in other military assignments without first having been granted a credible mandate to do so. The gold standard of such an authorization is a resolution passed by the UN Security Council, the stamp of approval that has permitted Chinese humanitarian interventions in Africa and antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. China might consider using drones abroad with some sort of regional authorization, such as a country giving Beijing explicit permission to launch a drone strike within its territory. But even with the endorsement of the international community or specific states, China would have to weigh any benefits of a drone strike abroad against the potential for mishaps and perceptions that it was infringing on other countries’ sovereignty -- something Beijing regularly decries when others do it.

The limitations on China’s drone use are reflected in the country’s academic literature on the topic. The bulk of Chinese drone research is dedicated to scientific and technological topics related to design and performance. The articles that do discuss potential applications primarily point to major combat scenarios -- such as a conflagration with Taiwan or the need to attack a U.S. aircraft carrier -- which would presumably involve far more than just drones. Chinese researchers have thought a great deal about the utility of drones for domestic surveillance and law enforcement, as well as for non-combat-related tasks near China’s contentious borders. Few scholars, however, have publicly considered the use of drone strikes overseas.

Yet there is a reason why the United States has employed drones extensively despite domestic and international criticism: it is much easier and cheaper to kill terrorists from above than to try to root them out through long and expensive counterinsurgency campaigns. Some similar challenges loom on China’s horizon. Within China, Beijing often considers protests and violence in the restive border regions, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, to constitute terrorism. It would presumably consider ordering precision strikes to suppress any future violence there. Even if such strikes are operationally prudent, China’s leaders understand that they would damage the country’s image abroad, but they prioritize internal stability above all else. Domestic surveillance by drones is a different issue; there should be few barriers to its application in what is already one of the world’s most heavily policed societies. China might also be willing to use stealth drones in foreign airspace without authorization if the risk of detection were low enough; it already deploys intelligence-gathering ships in the exclusive economic zones of Japan and the United States, as well as in the Indian Ocean.

Still, although China enjoys a rapidly expanding and cutting-edge drone fleet, it is bound by the same rules of the game as the rest of the military’s tools. Beyond surveillance, the other non-lethal military actions that China can take with its drones are to facilitate communications within the Chinese military, support electronic warfare by intercepting electronic communications and jamming enemy systems, and help identify targets for Chinese precision strike weapons, such as missiles. Beijing’s overarching approach remains one of caution -- something Washington must bear in mind with its own drone program.

  • ANDREW S. ERICKSON is an associate professor at the Naval War College and an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center. Follow him on Twitter @andrewserickson. AUSTIN STRANGE is a researcher at the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and a graduate student at Zhejiang University.
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