Think About It: Chinese drones filling Africa’s skies, watching over Beijing’s interests.
By Tobias Burgers and Scott N. Romaniuk for The Diplomat
In our previous article, “Is China Establishing a Norm Prohibiting Lethal Drone Strikes in Asia?” we discussed how China has refused to engage in the practice of targeted killings via the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or better known as (armed) drones. Likewise, we (briefly) described how at the same time China has occupied the position of lead-actor, if the not the world’s premier exporter, of armed drones. Armed drones used by various nations, including many in its own hemisphere, for the practice of targeted killings. Accordingly, China has acted contradictorily as it strongly seeks to prevent the use of drone strikes in its periphery, but evidently faces fewer challenges regarding so-called precision strikes in other regions worldwide, raising the question: Will China act as a champion of its own norm?
While for the moment it appears as though if China regionally – that is in East Asia – will adhere to its own norm, the possibility exists that it will not do so in other regions across the globe. For now, China is anchored to its norm while the United States has yet to reaffirm its commitment to more than a mere handful of international norms. There exists ample indication that China aims to build a global network similar to that of the United States, which would allow Beijing to aggressively protect its interests globally through its growing political, economic, and military muscle. This effort has taken shape in Africa with China over the course of the last two decades rapidly expanding its presence. China has become the continent’s most important economic partner in many ways. Its thirst for oil and other natural resources has sent Beijing on a modern day scramble for Africa – its presence in Africa though is well over 2,000 years old. Today we see the cultivation of Chinese ideals in ideological, political, and security terms operating in close quarters with China’s racy depletion of its own mineral resources, putting China in the “red zone.”
With its growing economic presence and dependence, we see a patent desire by the Chinese leadership to protect its interests abroad. In recent years China has deployed forces for anti-piracy missions off the Somali coast, sent troops to Sudan to protect its oil interests, and is seeking to further increase its military presence in other locales as well. Indeed, as The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda reported earlier this year, China signed a contract for the construction of support facilities for the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) in Djibouti. Albeit these facilities are foremost aimed at enhancing naval operations by PLAN, turning these facilities into one enabling drone operations would require little effort and few resources. As the Djibouti government seems receptive to the establishment of a Chinese base – and the financial benefits attached to it. Furthermore, as Panda reports, China has displayed interest in expanding its facilities beyond the base in Djibouti. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicated that China is seeking to actively enlarge its number of bases abroad to protect its economic interests.
For now, the focus remains on the Indian Ocean, but given China’s economic clout in Africa, and the importance of Africa for China concerning Beijing’s need for raw materials and needs for its civil and military industry, it is probable that China will seek to establish additional bases on the continent. Many of the current projects mentioned above foresee the deployment of conventional military personnel, but it remains to be seen if this will be the case over the next few years.
Drones are ideal for China to actively protect its economic interests throughout Africa. They are ideally suited for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and security overwatch operations, would provide China with a relatively cheap means to protect its interests – particularly vis-à-vis manned aircraft and ground personnel – and would enable Beijing to minimize political risks, as no military staff or contractors would be directly based in any combat or danger zone, therefore significantly limiting the risk of casualties. Finally, as no ground forces would be actively involved in combat it would limit the political cost for host nations. Chinese forces would simply be limited to their air bases and remain inconspicuous. Drones, as such, would present China with an option that it could find tough to resist, though tension certainly exists between the practical applications of drones and the norm China has recently sought to establish in South East Asia and East Asia.
Beijing has already sold CH-3 drones to the Nigerian government. According to Kyle Mizokami, a defense journalist and regular contributor to War Is Boring, China has sold these systems foremost with the aim of being used against the Boko Haram extremist group operating in the north-eastern region of Nigeria. The armed insurgency has the ability to threaten China’s oil investments in the country. In 2014 alone, these investments exceeded $10 billion USD, indicating the degree to which China is economically committed. David Axe, another War Is Boring writer, pointed out furthermore that whether or not the CH-3 drones are operated by Nigeria’s air force staff or by Chinese contractors remains unknown. If Chinese contractors are currently operating them – not entirely unlikely given Nigeria’s limited experience with operating drones – it would likely be with the consent and strong support of the military and political leadership of China. This example offers up an initial indication of how in the coming years it could be increasingly normal to see Chinese drones operating around Africa, protecting China’s significant and ever-increasing political, economic, and security interests. Flying overwatch and providing safety for its personnel involved in lucrative projects comes to a relatively small bill for Beijing.
Xinhua News Agency recently reported how the PLA had managed to conduct strikes via satellite connection, meaning that it has now the technical skills to carry out strikes anywhere in the world, with control stations located in China. Akin to the United States, China could deploy drones in forward bases, and have its pilots and weapons system officers located within its own borders, ensuring not only their safety, but also making sure the operating crews would not be restricted by the laws of host nations, or by international law, which could technically prohibit China from conducting such strikes – currently the only limiting factor seems to be logistical rather technical.
However, the use of armed drones does not automatically mean that China would actively use them for the practice of targeted killings. Nevertheless, if history is any indication, it seems likely that China could decide to use such offensive drone capabilities for relatively covert or low-footprint targeted killing purposes. As we noted in our prior article, China considered using a drone to strike a notorious drug smuggler from the Golden Triangle, who killed five Chinese seamen. It seems then to be apparent that China’s leadership sees no political, social, or ethical dilemma with regard to targeted killings. Likewise, this example indicates that in the case of the possible murder of Chinese citizens, China could simply use drones to retaliate against suspects, thereby ensuring a crude form of “justice” and setting a clear and direct example for other actors – indicating that targeting and harming Chinese citizens will be costly.
The Ming Dynasty’s interest in Africa during the 15th century bringing with it Zheng He’s massive treasure ships; today Beijing’s missions to Africa bring some of the most sophisticated drone technology. With an ever-increasing number of Chinese personnel active in construction projects, especially in more controversial mining projects in Africa – often in areas of limited statehood or even conflict – there is a significant likelihood that Chinese citizens (notably civilians) could become targets of rebel groups, criminal gangs, or even corrupt government officials and military personnel. Highly sensitive installations and attractive targets require target hardening, made possible through the use of constant drone surveillance and armed readiness. The China General Nuclear Power Corporation’s Husab mine in western-central Namibia is turning-out uranium (with the world’s largest uranium mine) for Beijing. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), China is operating its giant Kamoa copper mine through the Zijin Mining Group, tapping into the world’s largest (undeveloped, high-grade) copper deposits. African countries rank among the world’s top-5 countries for world-class minerals like copper, diamonds, tantalum, chromium, bauxite, and others. In order to prevent such a scenario from unfolding or getting out of hand, and to protect its overall interests, China could pursue an active and aggressive counter-strategy, with the help of armed drones, demonstrating that Chinese citizens are off the target menu and are to remain unharmed.
Africa represents the new frontline for the use of armed drones and with the creation of the emerging “Sahel security wall” where numerous U.S. drone bases have been constructed as part of burgeoning U.S. efforts to “hunt” Boko Haram. China has ample reason to confront the expanding drone capabilities of the United States across a continent that Beijing has unequivocally branded as an intricate part of the country’s future economic plans and long-term development. A possible scenario is on the horizon in which Chinese drones would fill Africa’s skies, watching over Beijing’s interests. This would only contribute to a global acceptance of the practice of targeted killing by adding the world’s second most powerful country and military to the list of actors involved in the “drone wars,” and would in essence mean that it remains very unlikely that such practices would be revered. The era of global automated, remote killing is closer than we think.
The Diplomat from where this piece was reproduced introduced the authors as, in the case of Tobias Burgers, a Doctoral Student at Otto-Suhr-Institute, Free University Berlin and formerly a Visiting Researcher at CSS, NCCU, Taipei, Taiwan. In the case of Scott N. Romaniuk, as a Doctoral Student at the School of International Studies, University of Trento and a Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Targeted Killing, University of Massachusetts (Dartmouth), United States.