China Considered Drone Strike Against Drug Lord

China mulled the use of drone-delivered explosives to kill a wanted drug lord, who was later captured and sentenced to death for the murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong river in 2011. The plan was revealed in a Chinese-language Global Times interview with Liu Yuejin, director of the Ministry of Public Security’s anti-drug bureau. From Ernest Kao at the South China Morning Post:

Naw Kham was the ring leader of a large drug trafficking outfit based in the Golden Triangle – a mountainous drug-producing region in Southeast Asia covering areas of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

“One plan was to use an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to carry 20kg of TNT to bomb the area, but the plan was rejected because we were ordered to catch him alive,” Liu told the Global Times.

It is a noteworthy revelation as senior Chinese officials rarely make public acknowledgents about the country’s ability to project power overseas.

The disclosure also highlights the level of technological sophistication in terms of China’s ability to surveil targets in Southeast Asia. This will likely draw concern from the Asean neighbours wary of China’s military capabilities.

A report last year by the U.S. Defense Science Board described the pace of China’s drone development as “worrisome” and “alarming”, and suggested that Beijing might “easily match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems.” China’s drone programmes to date have focused on surveillance, however, particularly of its long coastline. A small Chinese UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle, was spotted in the East China Sea by a Japanese destroyer in June 2011, and both China and Japan have indicated plans to deploy drones over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

The Obama administration’s opaque drone campaign in the Middle East, on the other hand, may have claimed as many as 4,700 lives, fuelling anger in the region and some opposition within the United States. Observers have long anticipated that other countries would eventually join in: in an October op-ed at The Washington Post, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker warned that America was setting important precedents, and urged the adoption of clear standards and practices for drone warfare.

Others, from European allies to Russia, China and Iran, are acquiring and beginning to use drones for surveillance — eventually, they will use them for killing as well. What would we say if others used drones to take out their opponents — whether within their own territory or internationally? Imagine China killing Tibetan separatists that it deemed terrorists or Russia launching drone strikes on Chechens. What would we say? What rules would we urge them to abide by?

The drone strike plan also demonstrates the progress of China’s Beidou satellite navigation system, whose availability expanded in December to commercial users across the Asia-Pacific. From Jane Perlez at The New York Times:

China’s global navigation system, Beidou, would have been used to guide the drones to the target, Mr. Liu said. China’s goal is for the Beidou system to compete with the United States’ Global Positioning System, Russia’s Glonass and the European Union’s Galileo, Chinese experts say.

Mr. Liu’s comments on the use of the Beidou system with the drones reflects the rapid advancement in that navigation system from its humble beginnings more than a decade ago.

The experimental navigation system was started in 2000 and has since expanded to 16 navigation satellites over Asia and the Pacific Ocean, according to an article in Wednesday’s China Daily, an English-language state-run newspaper. The Chinese military, particularly the navy, is now conducting patrols and training exercises using Beidou, the newspaper said.