Cashed-up aviation enthusiasts in the US and Europe are struggling to get their hands on UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), because governments are still trying to work out how to regulate their purchase and use. But in China, there are no rules, according to Lily Kuo and Tim Fernholz at Quartz:
China could become a drones “proliferator.” […] The portability and low cost of drones produced in China makes them more attractive. […] An example: China’s Wing Loong, a drone that is sometimes compared to the US’s Reaper, costs $1 million; the Reaper goes for around $30 million or more. [Source]
True zealots would be unwise to buy the Chinese vehicles, however, as most reports place their technology about 20 years behind the US. But a more real possibility is that China will start selling to other emerging markets, Quartz reports:
China has already used its satellite technology for this purpose: Nigeria, Brazil, Venezuela and Pakistan have all bought or received Chinese satellites in exchange for Chinese access to their natural resources. [Source]
Nevertheless, the Chinese are trying hard to catch up with US technology. In May, Foreign Policy posted pictures of a new stealth drone. They are a step up from an older generation of propeller-driven UAVs.
Since the revelation of China’s real presence in the drone air-space, many have opined on how it will use them. In Thailand’s The Nation, Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange describe an “impressive arsenal”:
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 Defence Ministry. [Source]
China will also be hesitant to use drones further afield due to “the restrictive position that Beijing takes on sovereignty in international forums.”
But for surveillance, it’s a different story, according to The Nation report:
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 authorisation 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. [Source]
The US government’s US – China Economic and Security Review Commission released a special report: China’s Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Industry on June 13th.
Read more about China’s drone development via CDT, including CDT coverage of the considered use of drones to target a drug lord in Myanmar, who was later captured and sentenced to death. Also see CDT coverage of maritime disputes in the South China and East China Seas, where the usage of drones is expected to increase.