China Is Building 42,000 Military Drones: Should America Worry?

The Buzz

China may be building an army of almost 42,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

On Friday, the Pentagon released its annual report to Congress on Chinese military power. The Pentagon’s assessment is that China has incredibly ambitious plans for building up a fleet of both sea and land-based UAVs in the coming years.

“China is advancing its development and employment of UAVs,” the report— entitled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015— said. “Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land- and sea-based unmanned systems, worth about $10.5 billion, between 2014 and 2023.”

This would be an astronomical rate of growth. Indeed, by way of comparison, the Pentagon itself only operates 7,000 aerial drones, according to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, although others have estimated it has more. The estimate of 7,000 drones also doesn’t include underwater UAVs.

The new Pentagon report highlights four Chinese drones in particular— the Xianglong, Yilong, Sky Saber, and Lijian— that were all unveiled in 2013. The Yilong, Sky Saber, and Lijian are all designed to carry carry precision-strike weapons, the report said, and the Lijian is a stealth drone. The Pentagon also noted that China has been incorporating UAVs into military exercises in recent years, including one drill in the East China Sea in 2013. That move irked Japan, which quickly announced that it had plans to shoot down foreign drones.

Chinese state-media outlets have also reported that Beijing once considered launching drone attacks in neighboring Myanmar to take out a drug dealer wanted for killing 13 Chinese sailors. China later decided to try to capture the drug dealer alive

The new report indicates growing alarm among the U.S. military over China’s UAV arsenal. Indeed, in its 2014 report on Chinese military power, the Pentagon merely stated: “China is incrementally advancing its development and employment of UAVs. Last year’s report also highlighted a 2013 report from the Defense Science Board that said that China’s UAV spending might match or exceed America’s in the future.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon’s assessment is consistent with other non-government reports, which have highlighted China’s burgeoning drone manufacturing capabilities. Back in May 2014, Forecast International, a private market researcher, released a forecast of the global UAV market over the next decade. The report estimated that the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a state-owned Chinese defense company, will lead the world in UAV production. According to Forecast International, AVIC will produce about $5.76 billion worth of UAVs through 2023. That is more than half of the UAVs by value that will be produced during this time period. Most of those UAVs will go to Chinese consumers, the report said, with the largest consumer almost certainly being the Chinese military. China has also expressed an interest in exporting UAVs, including to Saudi Arabia.

The 2015 Pentagon report also continued to express alarm over the scale of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s modernization campaign. “The PLA Air Force is rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities from aircraft, C2, to jammers, to electronic warfare (EW), to datalinks,” the report said. Last year’s report used similar language, although it also said that “the PLAAF is pursuing modernization on a scale unprecedented in its history.”

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The Next South China Sea Disaster: Environmental Armageddon

The Buzz

China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea remain a matter of grave concern for reasons that are not solely political. The radical transformation of major coral atolls in the region’s marine ecosystem affects far more than the already huge area physically occupied by China’s new islands. The biophysical impacts extend well beyond their artificial foundations into the waters of surrounding littoral states.

The Spratly Islands region has long been known as a treasure trove of biological resources, hosting part of Southeast Asia’s most productive coral reef ecosystems. Fish breed and replenish in its reefs and migrate across vast distances to and from littoral coasts as they follow plankton and other organisms adrift in the water. Satellites can discern the circulation of plankton-rich seawater around the South China Sea, indicating biological connections throughout the waters. These “Dangerous Grounds” ironically are a wellspring of life that helps sustain the marine populations of surrounding coasts.

The Philippines is particularly sensitive to these events due to heightened environmental awareness of its coastal communities that directly depend on fishing for subsistence. The closest province of Palawan is quite special in this regard as the country’s final ecological frontier: its waters are its most productive fishing ground, contributing 20% of annual fish productionStudies have also confirmed genetic linkages and interchange of species between the Spratly Islands region, Palawan waters, and the Sulu Sea, which in turn connects with all other archipelagic waters and Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle.

Dr. Edgardo Gomez of the Marine Science Institute, one of the most-respected marine scientists of the region and pioneer in the scientific cooperation activities in the 1990s, laments the destruction of 311 hectares of precious reefs and pegs the economic losses to be worth at least 110 Million USD annually, to be surely felt as reduction in fish catch in the coming decades. He points out that the ecological footprint of China’s reclamation spans more than the ground that the new islands stand on. While formerly productive reefs have been replaced with lifeless sand and concrete, the months of work to create each island also smothered surrounding areas through sedimentation and turbidity produced by dumping massive amounts of filling material. To bury the reef, these were siphoned off from surrounding areas, indicating disturbance and destruction of benthic communities either around the new island or elsewhere. Natural atolls will be dredged and become artificial harbors for the many ships to be stationed in the area, bringing with them the corresponding impact of continuous operational marine pollution on any remaining coral.

Settlement on the new islands will bring ruin through accompanying day-to-day activities such as sewage, garbage, anchoring, and marine debris. People will require a continuous supply of food most likely to be harvested from nearby waters. To top this off, China is deploying and operating its ravenous fishing fleet. Chinese fishing has already caused the destruction of its southern coastal reefs and decline of coastal fish stocks; no doubt it will also cause the rapid decline of these distant fishing grounds.

The impact zone of China’s activities thus extend well beyond the South China Sea: reefs directly destroyed, surrounding areas damaged, fish stocks of connected waters deprived of precious breeding grounds and habitats. The island-building spree and fishing fleet mobilization result not only in the deliberate destruction of vital and productive commons–they also impair the long-term sustainability of the marine environment of all the littoral States around the South China Sea.

While China argues that island-building is “reasonable, understandable, and legal,” the large-scale and irreparable damage wrought contravenes the fundamental principle that states’ activities should not cause trans-boundary harm to other states. This applies not only to incidental effects like pollution, but with even more force to activities that are purposely planned and executed, especially in areas where disputing states are additionally obliged not cause permanent damage pending settlement. China’s action, undertaken on such a massive scale, significantly damages the marine environment of the South China Sea and surrounding waters, and heralds the further degradation and depletion of their living resources. China’s own marine scientists have previously called attention to the decline of sensitive coral reefs in the South China Sea by as much as 80% due to ravenous economic exploitation; with reclamation, the remaining 20% stand to be lost as well.

Thus, there is some truth to China’s claim that the reclamation activities “are not directed against any state”: the long-term damage done is indiscriminate and undirected, making it much worse. In attempting to exclusively secure and control natural resources, it is also destroying the most fragile and sensitive marine resource base of the South China Sea and diminishing everyone else’s.  It has engaged in environmental aggression on a regional scale, and turned reclamation into an environmental weapon of mass destruction.

This piece first appeared courtesy of the Asia Maritime Transparency Project, CSIS. 

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsAsia

Nationalist Aspirations and a Tale of Two Elections

Paul Pillar

Two national elections during the past two months embody two different approaches to handling nationalist aspirations of subject populations, with two very different results.

One of the biggest story lines of this week's election result in the United Kingdom was the success of the Scottish National Party, which greatly increased its representation at Westminster by winning 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. Had the Labour Party won a plurality, the SNP very likely would have been a critical part of Labour's support, whether inside or outside a governing coalition. As it is, the SNP will occupy a major share of the opposition benches, a position it will use to press issues of special interest to Scotland.

The SNP's electoral success this week represents a continuation of a peaceful process of expressing Scottish nationalism and using political power to press the nationalist cause. Another major event in that process came last September with a referendum on Scottish independence. Enough Scots decided they would be better off remaining in the union for the “no” side to win that vote. But the referendum was the product of a negotiated agreement with the government in London, and there is every reason to believe that the government would be honoring the result if the outcome of the referendum had been different.

In short, Scottish nationalism, as well as the principle of self-determination, has been treated with respect by the English who hold most of the political power in Britain, notwithstanding how much most English may believe that sundering the United Kingdom would be a big mistake for everyone, or how much they may be annoyed by Scottish demands. And it is no accident that today the English do not live in fear of some Scottish terrorist group wreaking violence in the name of Scottish independence.

The British have had substantial experience with nationalist violence in lands under their control. Irish nationalism was a prominent example, first about a century ago involving the entire island of Ireland, and later in the form of terrorism by the Provisional Irish Republican Army centered on Ulster. The first wave of violence ended with the negotiated establishment of an independent Irish Free State. The second wave ended with another negotiated accord, known as the Good Friday Agreement, that provided for power-sharing in Northern Ireland and is generally considered a success.

Between those two waves of Irish violence, Britain was beset by violence in Palestine, perpetrated most notably by Menachem Begin's Irgun and an offshoot group, the Stern Gang, both of which conducted terrorist attacks in the name of establishing a Jewish state. Another future Israeli prime minister and one of the leaders of the Stern Gang, Yitzhak Shamir, modeled his efforts on the Irish resistance and adopted the nom de guerre “Michael” after the Irish nationalist Michael Collins. Britain did not seek to cling to Palestine indefinitely and, especially after the exhaustion of World War II, was only too happy to dump the problem into the lap of the United Nations. But Britain was still the power that, as a legacy of a League of Nations mandate, controlled Palestine, and Begin's and Shamir's terrorists pressed their violent campaign against British targets notwithstanding Britain's fight against Nazi Germany. The Stern Gang was created by Irgun members who wanted to continue anti-British attacks even during the war, and Irgun itself resumed its attacks well before the end of the war.

There is a direct organizational line from Irgun to what became the Herut party and later evolved into Likud, the party that won the largest share of seats in the election two months ago in Israel—the only one of the two states, one Jewish and one Arab, provided for in the UN partition plan for Palestine that ever came into existence. This week the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, finished assembling a new government just before his deadline for doing so. The government is if anything even more hard-line right-wing than Netanyahu's previous government. That means continuation of the policy of rejecting Palestinian nationalism and trying to suppress it forcefully. And that means no prospect for ending the tragic story of Israeli-Palestinian violence and all the disruptive oscillations it spreads throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Likely to be particularly influential in keeping Israel on this violent course is the far-right Jewish Home party, which takes second place to no one in its determination to keep the occupied West Bank under Israeli control forever. Because Jewish Home was able to drive a hard bargain while Netanyahu was trying to stitch together enough of a coalition to get a bare majority in the Knesset, it got key ministries that will help it to prevent any deviation from its preferred policies regarding the territories. One of those ministries is agriculture, which controls funding for settlements and will be headed by one of the most fervent Israeli proponents of expanding settlements in the West Bank. Jewish Home also is furnishing the justice minister, a notorious figure whose hateful anti-Palestinian statements have bordered on calling for genocide.

This is a very different approach to handling the nationalist aspirations of a subject population than we have seen with the English and Scots, and the results have been very different. Close off peaceful channels for pursuing and realizing such aspirations, and violent channels are the only ones left.

The difference in the two cases is not due to something in the nature or habits of the subject population. Scots showed plenty of feistiness and antagonism in violent confrontations with the English dating back to the days of William Wallace (played on film by Mel Gibson) and Robert the Bruce. The difference has been in the policies of those with the power.

One can imagine an alternative history in which English rulers endeavored to the present day to subjugate the Scots, to deny them political rights, and to seize and settle on their land. Scottish terrorist groups would be an inevitable part of such a history. Also likely to be part of it would be a rebuilding and reinforcement of Hadrian's Wall in an effort to defend against such terrorism, and the persistence of a miserable and costly military occupation in Scotland. All of Great Britain would be a far less congenial and civilized place than the sceptred isle we know today.

Policy choices on such matters can be made, and the choices that are made have major consequences.         

TopicsIsrael United Kingdom Terrorism RegionsMiddle East

The Gulf States: America's New Taiwan?

The Buzz

The upcoming Camp David Summit with nervous Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders has the Obama administration casting about for ways to enhance security assurances. Fearful that a probable nuclear accord with Iran would mark a strategic shift from the Arab Gulf toward Iran as regional guarantor (with the United States then ducking out to pivot to Asia), GCC countries are understandably speculating on a worst-case scenario.

America abandoning its largely informal security ties to the GCC, however, is highly unlikely. Even if negotiators reach a nuclear accord with Iran, there is no linkage of an agreement to any wider U.S.-Middle East strategy. In fact, the divorce of the Iran deal from any larger U.S. strategy was one of the major criticisms that former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz made of the administration in an influential Wall Street Journal commentary.

Nonetheless, given the U.S. role as security guarantor in the Gulf, such fears cannot be wished away. The body language and occasional White House hints suggest it hopes that a nuclear accord with Iran would lead to a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations and new cooperation in other areas. Such a fading enmity makes the Gulf’s fears almost inevitable.

It is worth noting that it has not been a case of either/or: until the 1979 Iran revolution, U.S. security policy in the Gulf was based on supporting the “twin pillars” of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The strategic importance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would not disappear with an Iran deal, and remains so, at least as long as the world depends on oil. But any renewed version of America’s ‘twin pillar” diplomacy would require an end to the Sunni-Shia conflict and a détente if not reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Don’t hold your breath for either.

A formal alliance, as the United States has with NATO or Japan, would require Congressional ratification and is off the table. Gaining Congressional approval for a formal alliance with Gulf monarchies is hard to imagine.  But instability in the region and the Gulf’s importance argues for some enhanced security relationship as sought by the GCC states.

There may be some possibilities gleaned from the longstanding U.S. security relationship to Taiwan. While short of an alliance, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) defines the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship. It requires the United States to consider any non-peaceful means to determine Taiwan’s future “a threat” of “grave concern.” It stipulates that in such circumstances, the United States would “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive nature” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” that jeopardize Taiwan’s security.

In addition to the TRA, when the United States normalized relations with China, it gave an informal pledge, known as the “Six Assurances” to Taiwan. These assurances included a U.S. commitment to keep arms sales open-ended, to not alter its position on sovereignty over Taiwan, and to not pressure Taipei to enter into negotiations with the People’s Republic of China.

Unlike the NATO Article 5 commitment—that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all—or the firm commitment to defend Japan if attacked, the TRA did not commit the United States to defend Taiwan if attacked. But it did lock the United States into efforts to help Taiwan defend itself, and the “grave concern” language implied the United States might take possible military action.

Most Asia analysts assume that if China took unprovoked military action to unify China, the United States would likely intervene militarily. Though Beijing-Taipei cross-straits relations are relatively smooth now, post-2016 elections in Taiwan could well see tensions rise and Taiwan become a source of friction in U.S.-China relations.  However, if Taiwan provoked Beijing by formally declaring independence, there is a good chance that the United States would not respond. Since the TRA was passed, the ambiguity in the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship has been a factor reinforcing stability.

Even Saudi suggestions it may go nuclear if Iran has a Taiwan precedent. On two previous occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States detected secret Taiwan efforts to build nuclear capabilities. The United States in effect, forced a choice: U.S.-Taiwan security ties or strategic independence. Any enhanced U.S.-GCC security relationship should have clear understandings about the impact of Saudi/GCC nuclear proliferation on U.S. security obligations to the region.

Of course, the situation concerning the GCC is very different. But the Taiwan example may be helpful in crafting stronger assurances to the GCC than are currently the case. Perhaps some Congressional mandate to help the GCC defend itself and a U.S. commitment to view with “grave concern” any outside aggression against a GCC state could help better reassure our strategic partners.

After Obama’s “redline” fiasco vis-à-vis Syria and Gulf paranoia about U.S.-Iran reconciliation, the administration desperately needs a creative approach to enhance its security relationship with GCC nations, bilaterally or collectively. Drawing lessons for our experience with Taiwan is not a bad place to start.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012 tweet: @RManning4 An earlier version of this article appeared on the Atlantic Council website, MENASource.


TopicsDiplomacy RegionsAsia

The Lusitania Sinking: Why No American Declaration of War on Germany?

The Buzz

Asking “what if” is a popular parlor game. Seldom, however, do we ever get an answer, and certainly not almost immediately.King George V of Britain is a rare exception. On the morning of May 7, 1915 in the midst of discussing Germany with a visiting American envoy, Colonel Edward M. House, he asked, “Suppose they should sink the Lusitania, with American passengers on board?” Within hours he had his answer.

The day had turned out to be surprisingly beautiful off the coast of southern Ireland. The morning’s fog had lifted, replaced by bright sunshine. The passengers on board the RMS Lusitania, the fastest and most luxurious cruise ship on the seas, eagerly anticipated their impending arrival in Liverpool, just six days after departing New York. What they didn’t know as their ship sliced through the Irish Sea in the early afternoon, just a dozen miles off Old Head of Kinsale, was that a German submarine had spotted them, or that, the Lusitania’s captain, despite knowing of possible submarine activity in the area, ignored recommendations that he plot an evasive course. It was a fatal mistake. At 2:10 p.m., the submarine fired one of its two remaining torpedoes, scoring a direct hit. The “Greyhound of the Seas” sank in just eighteen minutes. Nearly 1,200 people died, including 128 Americans.

News of the Lusitania’s sinking shocked the American public, much as Pearl Harbor and September 11 would shock future generations. Unlike those two tragedies, however, the sinking of the Lusitania didn’t produce a national consensus in favor of war. True, staunch nationalists like former president Teddy Roosevelt, who thought that President Woodrow Wilson had erred eight months earlier in declaring the United States neutral in the war in Europe, denounced the attack as barbarous and demanded a confrontation with Germany. So did some newspapers. The day after the Lusitania’s sank, theNew York Herald ran a headline exclaiming, “WHAT A PITY THEODORE ROOSEVELT IS NOT PRESIDENT!

But as horrified as most Americans were at the thought of civilians being attacked without warning and left to a cruel fate in the sea, they recoiled at the thought of war. Many Americans still saw Washington’s advice to stand apart from Europe and Jefferson’s warning against “entangling alliances” as gospel. Irish Americans had no interest in fighting to help Britain so long as it denied Ireland its independence. German Americans sympathized with their ancestral homeland. And still other Americans saw no virtue in either war or the squabbling European powers. When New York newspapers asked editors around the country how the United States should respond to the Lusitania’s sinking, only six out of the thousand who responded urged war.

Hawkish voices were more numerous in the Wilson administration. Wilson’s close confidante and in many ways his de facto secretary of state, Colonel House, spoke for many of Wilson’s other advisers when he counseled that “America has come to the parting of the ways, when she must determine whether she stands for civilized or uncivilized warfare. We can no longer remain neutral spectators.” But Wilson’s actual secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, a pacifist who had hoped to convince countries to settle their disputes through binding arbitration, raged against the anti-Germany sentiment. Suspecting that the Lusitania carried munitions—it did— and noting that the German government hadplaced ads in New York newspapers warning Americans not to sail on the Lusitania, he wanted evenhanded treatment of Britain and Germany.

Wilson tried to steer a middle course. He hoped to satisfy what he saw as the public’s “double wish,” to stop future German attacks yet keep the United States at peace. He drafted the first in what turned out to be a series of stern diplomatic notes to Berlin. Even this was too much for Bryan. When Wilson decided in early June to write a second note to Berlin, he resigned in protest.

Unbeknownst to both Wilson and Bryan, Kaiser Wilhelm II had recognized the damage the attack on the Lusitania had done to Germany. Three days before Bryan resigned, he ordered German submarines to cease attacking cruise liners. But reluctant to take any action that suggested that the sinking of the Lusitania had been unjustified, Berlin kept the order secret. It wasn’t until September that Germany told Washington that its submarines would not launch unprovoked attacks on passenger ships. The policy remained in place until February 1917. Berlin’s decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare placed it on a collision path with the United States. On April 6, 1917, Congress voted to declare war.

So King George got the answer to the question he posed to Colonel House. The sinking of the Lusitania would produce outrage and diplomatic protests. It would not, however, push the United States into war.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog The Water's Edge here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0. 

TopicsWorld War I RegionsEurope