China swooping in on military drone market

Story highlights

  • Sarah Kreps: China sought to increase its prominence in the drone export market
  • Less expensive Chinese versions could increase access to drones in unstable parts of the world, she says

Sarah Kreps is an associate professor of government and adjunct professor of law at Cornell University. She is the author of "Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know." The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)The United States has often been criticized for its use of armed drones. But in recent months, a new country has begun drawing attention. And while it has not used armed drones in combat, its increasing willingness to export the technology to other countries has serious implications for combat in the future.

Earlier this year, Nigeria confirmed using a Chinese-made CH-3 in its fight against Boko Haram, while Iraq appears to have used a CH-4 starting late 2015. In addition, Pakistan is now using a platform suspiciously resembling the CH-3, despite official reports that the drone is indigenously produced. (At the least, this probably would have required considerable collaboration from the Chinese and may have been assembled in Pakistan from Chinese-made components). Meanwhile, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are thought to have bought similar drones from China.
    Why has China sought to increase its prominence in the drone export market? The answer is not primarily economic. At about $1 million per Wing Loong drone (compared with $30 million for the Reaper, the U.S. counterpart), it would take a lot of drone sales to make a compelling financial case for China. Instead, the sale of arms is more likely one element in its diplomatic toolkit, giving it an additional way to extend its reach into the Middle East, Latin America and Africa as it builds these security relationships.
    In addition, a large arms market can be seen as a symbol of prestige. Much like its space program, which signals China's status as an advanced industrialized country, a global network of drone exports based on its own indigenous military capabilities suggests that China is a force to be reckoned with. This dynamic becomes a positive feedback loop that helps cultivate its defense base -- the more weapons China sells, the more resources it has to invest in research and development, and the more attractive its defense innovations become to potential importers.
    Whatever the motivation, the drone sales raise the question of how much of an effect this will have on the international security environment.
    In the short term, despite the relatively widespread sale of Chinese drones, the exports are unlikely to be a game changer. Each of the countries that has used some version of Chinese-made drones has used them in a counterinsurgency context, not to start new wars with neighbors. These drones are lower-cost, less capable versions of U.S. drones; they fly low and slow, and are unlikely to be especially valuable against any adversary other than an insurgency that lacks robust air defenses.
    But looking ahead -- if the technology improves, and these countries start acquiring next-generation stealth drones -- the calculus could change. Such technology could change these states' war-making calculus and lower the threshold for using force across borders. If this happens, the consequences would be destabilizing, especially in regions where border disputes already mean frosty ties.
    Where the increased drone sales are more worrisome, though, is how they contribute to a "cheap but good enough" trend, with China as a major supplier. What that means in practice is some countries that might not have been able to afford certain technologies from Europe, the United States, or Russia -- or that would not have been allowed to purchase them from the Europeans or the United States -- now have access to weapons. The infusion of drones into some of these countries and their disputes could be like throwing gasoline on a fire.
    However, China's exports don't affect only its customers -- there are also implications for the United States' own export policies.
    As a founding member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR, which regulates the international transfer of drones, the United States has tended to have relatively strict export policies when it comes to drones. For example, it has exported armed Reapers only to its close ally, the United Kingdom, and more recently announced that it would arm Italy's Reapers. China, in contrast, is not a member of the MTCR, and recent export patterns suggest that it is willing to flout the types of restrictions that the United States not only helped establish, but has tended to reinforce.
    This is not an argument for a race to the bottom in which the United States, China, and Israel (which has its own thriving drone industry) adopt increasingly aggressive export policies. Quite the opposite. And China did last year gesture toward greater restrictions on its drone exports. Yet there has been little evidence to suggest that it is following through when it comes to the types of drones that have increasingly appeared in other states' arsenals.
    How should the United States respond? It would be well served trying to co-opt China into international governance on the transfer of armed drones. Upon first blush, the U.S. might be a hypocritical choice to integrate China, given criticism of the United States' own drone policies. But this also makes it exactly the right choice -- it has been the most dominant and influential country when it comes to armed drones.
    In the case of drones, the expectation would be that involvement in the MTCR and other relevant arms control institutions could help limit the sale of arms to unsavory parties and control how those recipients use the technology. China did officially apply for MTCR membership in 2004, but was ultimately rebuffed over suspicions that it was providing North Korea with sensitive missile technology. Still, the episode could lend further support to those who have called for a drone-specific international institution rather than the MTCR, which leaves out a number of drone exporters and brings together a wide array of delivery platforms in a way that both dilutes and confuses the focus of each.
    Ultimately, however China decides to proceed, developments in recent months have already made one thing clear: U.S. drone use may have made the headlines in the last decade, but much of the action in the next 10 years is likely to reside elsewhere.