China Has Drones. Now What?

When Beijing Will—and Won't—Use Its UAVs

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

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