China is filling the void left by U.S. restrictions on selling powerful military drones to most countries, including American allies like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt and foes such as North Korea, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has learned.
As a result, Beijing has enabled various countries to use drones to spy and kill remotely.
The Pentagon has expressed concerns that U.S. enemies could use advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against American service members.
In Syria, American troops have already shot down two Iranian-made drones used by Shiite militias to threaten the U.S.-led coalition.
“Several countries in the Mideast and Africa have deployed weapons in conflicts after buying from Beijing—at lower cost,” notes WSJ, later adding, “For the U.S., that is a strategic and commercial blow.”
The Journal also reports:
The U.S. has long refused to sell the most powerful U.S.-made drones to most countries, fearing they might fall into hostile hands, be used to suppress civil unrest or, in the Mideast, erode Israel’s military dominance. The U.K. is the only foreign country that has operated armed Predators and Reapers, the most potent U.S. systems for offensive drone strikes, according to people familiar with U.S. sales.
China is discussing building its drones in the Middle East.
“In March, Chinese and Saudi officials agreed to jointly produce as many as 100 Rainbow drones in Saudi Arabia, including a larger, longer-range version called the CH-5, according to people involved,” reveals WSJ.
Beijing claims it is paying attention to how its clients are using the drones it sells.
China has sold armed drones to various countries, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reported the Pentagon in June.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) pointed out in its report that, “China faces little competition for sale of such systems, as most countries that produce them are restricted in selling the technology” by international agreements.
China has the capability to produce nearly 42,000 drones, valued at more than $10 billion, in the decade up to 2023, the Pentagon has determined.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China is now the third-biggest arms seller by value, behind the United States and Russia, respectively.
Late last year, the annual Jane’s Defense Budgets Report compiled by the research firm IHS Markit revealed that United States, China, and the United Kingdom, respectively, spend more money on defense than any other country in the world.
Besides fueling the proliferation of UAVs that resemble U.S. Predator and Reaper drones, Chinese state companies are selling the aircraft to American allies and other buyers at a fraction of the cost.
China recently begun commercial production of its most powerful drone, the CH-5 Rainbow, the South China Morning Post reports.
The UAV is sold at “half of the price” of the American Reaper or Predator drones, notes the Chinese newspaper.
Some American manufacturers and politicians are lobbying President Donald Trump’s administration to relax the export control policies to prevent China from expanding its drone market share and undermine U.S. alliances.
Currently, Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) is in the process of reviewing the drone-export policies with the intention to “wherever possible” remove any hurdles to U.S. companies’ ability to compete with China, an unnamed senior Trump administration official told the Journal.
“We are attuned to what China is doing,” said the Trump official.
The Trump administration wants to help American industry while advancing strategic objectives, including “a deliberate approach to our technology sales policy and the protections we put in place to avoid imperiling innocent lives,” noted Thomas Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration attempted to facilitate drone exports under close regulation, leading efforts to require the use of a global “drone code” to curb proliferation and keep the weapons from falling into the wrong hands.
Obama is known for embracing the use of military drones, “Overseeing more strikes in his first year than [former President George W.] Bush carried out during his entire presidency,” reported the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.