A new report from Drone Wars UK, Contested Sea, Crowded Sky, looks at the steady acquisition of drones by smaller states in South East Asia and their deployments in the South and East China Seas that are contributing to destabilisation in the region and deteriorating relations between China and the US.
The proposed sale of a maritime version of the Reaper drone to Taiwan as well as US Reaper operations in the pacific region have greatly angered China. Caught in a super-power stand-off, smaller states in the region also have security concerns regarding contested island chains, natural resources under the sea bed and access to fishing waters. The tensions over ownership and resources are contributing to military build-up in the South and East China seas. As well as upgrading jets and naval vessels, states are investing in longer range, more persistent unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to enhance security.
For new weapon systems, South East Asian states, have primarily looked to Israel, China and the US – the major drone exporters – for the latest surveillance technology and some are also investing heavily in their own capabilities, in order to acquire armed systems.
The report also covers China’s drone use in South and East China Sea. Having first escalated tensions with Japan in 2013 in the East China Sea by flying the BZK-005 in contested airspace over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, there is now a new drone programme with the Ministry of Natural Resources that observers think may be connected to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Either way, it gives Chinese authorities much more surveillance capacity in disputed areas where neighbouring states are also ramping up security and surveillance.
As the proliferation of drones continues without any international agreements on standards for use, the increasing of addition of drones in the South and East Asian region highlights how another region is succumbing to a drone race to retain a strategic advantage over neighbours and adversaries. The reality is that drones lower the threshold for the use of force and make armed conflict more likely. Adding this dangerous technology into this highly militarised zone could fan the flames of any smouldering conflict and turn it into a conflagration.
Date: October 2020
Author: Joanna Frew