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East Asia Drone Wars

January 9, 2013

Northrop-Grumman Global Hawk (USAF)

In one of my only posts last year, around this time, I argued that 2012 would be in the ‘year of the drone’ – and it certainly lived up to that. But we’re still only just beginning. This is already the decade of the drone. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are going to be everywhere in the coming few years (and of course not just in international disputes – I am writing about the spread of domestic surveillance drones for a major report on Surveillance in Canada that we’re producing right now).

Media outlets are reporting that the dispute over maritime territory between China and Japan is ramping up through the use of UAVs.  At the moment both countries rely heavily on conventional naval or fisheries surveillance vessels, which are limited in terms of speed of deployment and numbers. However, surveillance drones could enable a more consistent presence over the disputed islands (and more importantly the sea around them, whose fisheries and below seabed mineral resources are the real underlying issue here).

However, there are big differences in the politics and the political economy of each state’s strategic trajectory here. Japan is relying on its longstanding ‘alliance’ with the USA, and is likely to purchase US-made Northrop-Grumman Global Hawks, further emphasizing the military dependency Japan still has on the USA. China, on the other hand, is speeding up development of its own UAVs, in multiple different models. US industry sources seem more worried by alleged breaches of intellectual property rights in the drones’ design than by strategic issues – but of course, China has almost certainly had access to both hardware and software from downed US drones, which is all part of what some analysts are terming a ‘drone race’ with the USA.

and the Chinese version (Chengdu Aircraft Co.)

But this isn’t just about surveillance. Like the USA’s models, many of China’s UAVs are armed or can be weaponized very easily, and again like the USA, China has also been looking to export markets – most recently, Pakistan has been discussing the purchase of several armed drones from China, following the distinct lack of success in its own UAV development program.

The Global Hawks that Japan is buying are not armed, but this doesn’t mean that Japan is acting less aggressively here or will not in future used armed drones. Despite the post-WW2 US-imposed but popular ‘pacifist’ constitution of the country, the recent return to power of rightist PM Shinzo Abe might will mean both more heated rhetoric over territorial claims and attempts to increase the of the country’s self-defence forces: a review of Japanese military spending – with a view to increasing it – was announced just yesterday.

Drones would seem to be a politically popular choice in this regard as they do not involve putting Japanese lives at risk, or at least not directly; however the longer term outcomes any drone war in East Asia would not likely favour a Japan whose regional economic and political power is influence declining relative to China’s.

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