It’s safe to say, then, that Chinese drones conjure up a particularly intense sense of alarm that the media has begun to embrace as a license to panic. China is indeed developing a range of unmanned aerial vehicles/systems (UAVs/UASs) at a time when relations with Japan are tense, and when those with the U.S. are delicate. But that hardly justifies claims that “drones have taken center stage in an escalating arms race between China and Japan,” or that the “China drone threat highlights [a] new global arms race,” as some observers would have it. This hyperbole was perhaps fed by a 2012 U.S. Department of Defense report which described China’s development of UAVs as “alarming.”
That’s quite unreasonable. All of the world’s advanced militaries are adopting drones, not just the PLA. That isn’t an arms race, or a reason to fear China, it’s just the direction in which defense technology is naturally progressing. Secondly, while China may be demonstrating impressive advances, Israel and the U.S. retain a substantial lead in the UAV field, with China—alongside Europe, India and Russia— still in the second tier. And thirdly, China is modernizing in all areas of military technology – unmanned systems being no exception.
Nonetheless, China has started to show its hand in terms of the roles that it expects its growing fleet of UAVs to fulfill. In a clear indication that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an operational armed UAV capability in which it feels relatively confident, last week reports of a plan to send a UAV into Myanmar to assassinate a drug trafficker who had murdered 13 Chinese nationals came to light. The Chinese government ultimately rejected this tactic, but it is evidently tempted to follow Washington’s lead in reserving the right to use UAVs to target enemies of the state, even on foreign soil.