With drone plan, China seems to be learning America's unilateral ways

Greg Torode says China's revelation of a plan to use drones signals it is ready to claim the superpower prerogative, just as the US does

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 4:00am

Talk about China's ambitions and excesses with mainland officials, scholars and students, and the phrase "just look at what the US does" surfaces with crushing inevitability.

US exploration in the Gulf of Mexico is trotted out to justify China's actions in the South China Sea, for example. Or it might be the suggestion that the US would not accept Chinese warships routinely patrolling near its coasts, just as Beijing warns off US carriers from the Yellow Sea.

Both are debatable at best and spurious at worst. The key point, however, is China's apparent enthusiasm to fill the same superpower space as the US - and that includes the "do as I say, not as I do" prerogative that comes with being a global power.

Just last week, the Global Times revealed a plot to kill a Myanmese drug baron who was wanted for the murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong in 2011. A mainland drone would be flown over the border into Myanmar to drop a 20kg bomb on Naw Kham in his Golden Triangle lair. Senior public security ministry official Liu Yuejin said the plan was only rejected because mainland authorities wanted Naw Kham alive. Captured in Laos in April last year, he is now awaiting execution in Yunnan .

News of the plan has been greeted with alarm, but not surprise, across the region. While it might have represented a key test for both Chinese drones and the effectiveness of the Beidou satellite system, the technology is certainly not beyond Beijing.

The assumption is, of course, that China would not have seen fit to inform Myanmar until after the fact - taking a cue from the more controversial elements of the drone strike programme expanded by the Obama administration. As the US has repeatedly shown, unilateral cross-border hits by unmanned planes carry significantly less baggage than the use of conventional air strikes by jet fighters.

Officials across the region fear the Global Times report was merely an effort to "soften up" East Asia for the future use of Chinese drones. "When I read it, my first thought was simply: welcome to the future," one Southeast Asian envoy said. "Even if the plot existed as described, to me Beijing was flying a kite by getting it out there."

Certainly, China has a broadening array of interests that might suit the creative exploitation of its emerging drone force. Myanmar is home to a mainland oil and gas pipeline linking landlocked Yunnan with the Indian Ocean - a strategic asset that will be extremely difficult to secure and police.

Drones, too, could play a key role in harassing fishermen from rival claimant countries in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, or monitoring and interrupting oil exploration activities that it objects to. A drone, for example, could take out a towed array a lot more simply than a surveillance ship deployed to cut the cables of a foreign ship, as has happened recently. Domestic uses of drones inside China only raise more questions.

If some of this sounds far-fetched or extreme, just consider this: Chinese drones staging assassination strikes over Myanmar would have been inconceivable a decade ago.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent. greg.torode@scmp.com