China Almost Used a Drone

A Chinese CH-4 drone.
A Chi­nese CH‑4 drone.

The New York Times reports that Chi­na almost used a drone to catch a mur­der­ous drug lord in Bur­ma.

Chi­na con­sid­ered using a drone strike in a moun­tain­ous region of South­east Asia to kill a Myan­mar drug lord want­ed in the mur­ders of 13 Chi­nese sailors, but decid­ed instead to cap­ture him alive, accord­ing to an influ­en­tial state-run news­pa­per.

The plan to use a drone, described to the Glob­al Times news­pa­per by a senior pub­lic secu­ri­ty offi­cial, high­lights China’s increas­ing capac­i­ty in unmanned aer­i­al war­fare, a tech­nol­o­gy dom­i­nat­ed by the Unit­ed States and used wide­ly by the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion for the tar­get­ed killing of ter­ror­ists.

Except they did­n’t, so it does­n’t. There are a few things to unpack here.

For starters, the com­mon fear that Amer­i­ca’s use of drones will prompt oth­er coun­tries to reck­less­ly use drones for death would sug­gest that Chi­na would­n’t real­ly care how it got this guy, since they could just appeal to Amer­i­ca for their jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. But instead they made a con­sid­ered, ratio­nal, cost-based deci­sion about the best method of grab­bing this guy.

Sec­ond­ly, Chi­na’s rise means they will increas­ing­ly use advanced tech­nol­o­gy. This is not a bad thing, per se, though it also means they won’t always do Amer­i­ca’s bid­ding. There is a self-ful­fill­ing aspect to the US-Chi­na rela­tion­ship, and using Chi­na’s tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments to hype a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion (as some will inevitably do) is a mis­take. Instead, this is a key oppor­tu­ni­ty for the US to include Chi­na in a col­lab­o­ra­tive inter­na­tion­al frame­work for how to use these weapons humane­ly and effec­tive­ly.

Third­ly, the drug lord Chi­na tar­get­ed was a mon­ster. He mur­dered 13 Chi­nese sailors on car­go ships filled with nar­cotics in the Mekong Riv­er then post­ed the pic­tures of the dead peo­ple on the Inter­net. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment marked him for death, and an armed drone was one option on a menu of choic­es for how they could locate and kill him.

Fourth­ly, the role of the pub­lic is a key con­sid­er­a­tion in how coun­tries use drones. While the Amer­i­can pub­lic might be get­ting uncom­fort­able with using a drone to kill oth­er Amer­i­cans, they rabid­ly sup­port using drones every­where else. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers also love the drones, and insist con­stant­ly that they’re the only effec­tive weapon to go after some foes. It is only in the flap­py talk­ing head are­na that drones are real­ly con­tro­ver­sial.

In the Times’ sto­ry, the Chi­nese pub­lic was more or less demand­ing blood over those dead sailors, and the gov­ern­ment would have prob­a­bly been praised for dron­ing that drug lord. Amer­i­ca’s approval or prece­dent is imma­te­r­i­al in that sense: the Chi­nese could, the Chi­nese pub­lic want­ed it, so case closed. The drug lord is still going to die, he’s already been marked for exe­cu­tion.

As for Naw Kham, the fugi­tive, he was cap­tured at the Mekong Riv­er port of Mong Mo after a six-month hunt in the jun­gles of the Gold­en Tri­an­gle by the com­bined police forces of Chi­na, Myan­mar, Thai­land and Laos. Naw Kham has received the death sen­tence from a Chi­nese court in Yun­nan province, and awaits exe­cu­tion, accord­ing to Chi­nese press reports.

Well then. So while this is going to con­tin­ue to spark fear, uncer­tain­ty, and doubt, but this is actu­al­ly kind of a non-sto­ry. Drones remain expen­sive and dif­fi­cult to oper­ate the way the US does, and Chi­na isn’t quite ready to even try doing that in a friend­ly envi­ron­ment with coop­er­a­tive gov­ern­ments to assist.

It remains a big wor­ry what they’ll do in the future as they devel­op their capa­bil­i­ties more ful­ly. But that day is a long ways off, and con­sid­er­ing how they still pre­ferred to cap­ture peo­ple rather than kill them (imag­ine!) it might not even be a real issue in the long run.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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