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Sieren's China

Frank SierenSeptember 22, 2015

China is producing affordable military drones and successfully selling them abroad. DW's Frank Sieren thinks that China and the US should work together to ensure that they do not fall into the wrong hands.

China's CH-4 drone
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Azubel

Drones are now on China's list of goods whose export will be restricted in future. The Chinese trade ministry gave "national security" as the reason after images of a combat drone that had crashed in Nigeria's north-easternmost state Borno appeared on Twitter. It was a CH3 model made by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and was equipped with a camera and also Chinese AR1 missiles. Specialists knew that Nigeria had bought five of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the fight against the extremist group Boko Haram in 2014 - these photos were the first proof that they had been used.

The government's move only makes sense at first glance. Although it is cagey about China's arms exports, reports in the state media indicate that there are at least nine countries which have already bought UAVs from China. CASC's CH3 is the main sales hit. Pakistan is also using this technology. When the Pakistani army deployed a new drone called the Burraq two weeks ago, military experts spotted significant similarities with the Chinese model. Jordan could be another buyer with China having offered to sell it armed combat drones earlier this year.

Gap in the market for Chinese drones

China is focusing on a gap in the market - countries that Washington is not working with. Exports are so strictly regulated that so far only the UK has officially been able to buy armed US drones. The US prefers to be engaged to fly its own missions, like in Nigeria for example where US drones are being used to track down Boko Haram bases. The US embassy then gives sensitive information to the Nigerian army which is then handed over to the government for evaluation. The same is true in Pakistan and Jordan. For the governments in these countries, the system is considered too complicated.

Chinese-made drones are still not so advanced in technological terms but customers themselves can decide how and when to use them. The price also plays a role of course. Wing Loong drones made by Aviation Industry Corp of China (Avic) cost $1 million - a bargain compared to its US counterpart, the Reaper, which boasts similar technology but costs $30 million. Thanks to this advantage in terms of cost, Avic hopes to be the biggest manufacturer of military drones in the world by 2023. The exports restriction will not make a big difference. Even Western experts agree that it is only a matter of time before Chinese-made drones can stand up to those made in the US and Israel in terms of technology.

Frank Sieren
Image: Frank Sieren

Cooperation for regulation?

Beijing's export restrictions will not hit the mark, despite the fact that a law came into force in August making it necessary to have official permission before exporting drones of a certain size and performance. It is a question of preventing drones from getting into the hands of Boko Haram or IS. It would be a political disaster if a Chinese-made drone were to shoot on a US-made one. Nonetheless, the Chinese army remains very willing to put money into unarmed systems.

According to the Pentagon's estimations, China will spend over $10 billion for over 41,800 unmanned air and water units between 2014 and 2023. The estimations can also serve to persuade politicians in Washington that US makers should also be able to export. Politicians will have to give in sooner or later. The Chinese law will not be able to prevent abuse. It would make sense if China and the US joined forces to prevent drones from falling into the wrong hands. A precondition for such cooperation would be mutual transparency. However, right now current number one world power and its successor are far from ready for this.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.