China: The World’s Drone Superstore

China’s drone market is the one of the more recent pieces of fuel added to the fire that is the “Rise of China” debate. Over the past decade with its rapidly growing economy, the international community has heavily focused on what China’s ascendance means for the international system as a whole. Many in the United States especially have worried about being usurped from the position as the world’s most powerful hegemon. As recent as 10 March 2016, a former CIA chief stated that mishandling the rise of China ‘will be catastrophic.’ With its economic rise slowing down, focus has been more specifically directed on China’s military capabilities. It was speculated that China would announce its biggest military budget increase yet in March of 2016, however, news outlets such as The New York Times were surprised by how little in comparison to previous years this increase was, coming in at an increase around 7.6 per cent. Yet, the military budget still demonstrated growth, signifying the continued intention to expand China’s military capabilities.  In spite of this growth and recent controversy regarding the South China Sea, something that is far more worthy of concern is China’s drone selling policy which could ultimately lead to a far more unstable—and therefore more dangerous—international system. China’s drone (and other weapons) sales not only increase China’s both hard and soft power means, but are also a threat in that they provide more advanced weaponry systems to a wide variety of states, potentially leading to a number of unsavoury situations.

Image courtesy of John Loo, © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of John Loo, © 2013, some rights reserved.

China is renowned for producing popular products at lower prices and is therefore a popular option for international buyers. In recent years, this policy of offering cheaper goods has increasingly turned more dangerous with China becoming the world’s third largest arms exporter behind Russia and the United States. This has become of great concern to the international community, especially regarding China’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or as they are more commonly known, drones. According to CNBC, by the mid 2020s, the global market for military drones will reach $10 billion.

In 2015, China made international news by selling drones to Iraq. This was significant not only for the new capabilities it provided Iraq, but also because it demonstrated a shift in reliance on the United States for weaponry. Other countries showed a similar trend with Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Pakistan also purchasing China’s drones.

The drones that are most popular are called the “Caihong” or “Rainbow” series, commonly abbreviated to CH-3s and CH-4s. These are designed for intelligence gathering as well as strike missions. Currently there are between 75 and 100 companies in China—both private and state owned—manufacturing UAVs. The “Caihong” series is produced by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which introduced the CH-3 in 2008 and the CH-4 in 2012. The CH-4b has even been incorporated in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.  It boasts an ability to carry over 130 pounds of missiles and bombs as well as stay in the air for up to 40 hours. In November of 2015, the “Caihong” producers announced the CH-5, which has been upgraded to be able to carry even more weapons. Shi Wen, the chief designer of the CH series boasted of this new models’ ability to ‘perform air-to-ground strike, reconnaissance, and transport options,’ and informed that the company plans to ‘launch the export version of the CH-5 to the international market.’

Numerous states are flocking to China to purchase their UAVs due to their relatively low prices as well as their no questions asked policy. According to Foreign Policy, China’s armed drone is less than a quarter of the cost of a US made Predator UAV. Unlike the United States, which imposes tight restrictions on the export of drones, China simply provides to those who can pay. These tight US restrictions even apply to its NATO allies, as seen when Italy had to undergo a lengthy process in order to purchase an armed “Reaper” UAV. Thus, for those who are not US allies and do not have significant financial means to purchase US crafted drones, China has offered a welcome solution. Additionally, the US is restricted from selling drones via the Missile Technology Control Regime from the late 1980s. This “MTCR” was established at the end of the Cold War to help prevent the proliferation of missile technology. According to CNBC, part of the MTCR mandates that ‘unless the exporting state can provide compelling reasons to export such systems to another country, its default response should be to deny such sales.’ China, meanwhile, is restrained by no such agreement and can sell to whomever it wants without requiring a good reason to do so.

Drones are incredibly useful for situations where it is unsafe or too difficult to use a human piloted aircraft. Additionally, they provide means for ‘delivering precision strikes without the need for more intrusive military action.’ They have become increasingly popular, as technology has advanced throughout the years, with the number of UAVs more than doubling between the most recent Bush and Obama administrations. With the increasing number of drones being used, the prospect of operating under more dangerous or difficult circumstances slowly disappears and there is nothing to deter rash actions. Thus, some wonder if this will increase the instability of the international system due to drones making it easier to launch attacks which previously would have been considered impossible.

Further increasing the potential instability of the system is increased lack of ability of powerful states to wield control over other states via offering weapons. According to CNBC, ‘arms deals are often used to reward allies or telegraph displeasure to foreign governments.’ Thus, with China providing the means for foreign governments to pursue easily accessed alternatives, using arms deals to police the international system is losing potency. It also makes China look more favourable in the eyes of those it is assisting in attaining these weapons. This means China gains significant sway within the system. The Asian country can also use the selling of drones as a “bargaining chip” to gain significant advantages such as access to other countries’ oil.

With cheap prices and a strong privacy policy, buying China’s drones has become an increasingly attractive option. The purchasing of China’s UAVs expands China’s material power through economic means, but more importantly, it increases China’s diplomatic power by providing a strong incentive to cooperate with China in exchange for less expensive weapons.  It also provides more countries with advanced weaponry that could be used for nefarious purposes. Without belonging to any kind of agreement, such as ones signed at the end of the Cold War to deter proliferation, China can continue to freely provide potentially dangerous states and even non-state actors with powerful weapons, negatively impacting the security of the international community. Thus, while actual increases of power and influence that China has is potentially a threat, the real issue lies with the influx of weapons being distributed throughout the system. It is not the actual rise of China that should be a concern, but rather one of the means it is using to facilitate that rise. The international community should not aim to keep China in check, but rather negotiate a stricter sales policy.

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