Written by Scott N. Romaniuk and Tobias J. Burgers

The United States (US) – most specifically the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – has been identified as the world’s biggest drone user, but not the world’s biggest drone exporter.

In recent years, US dominance of drone warfare has been fading. For over a decade the US has been at the vanguard with its MQ-1C Gray Eagle and MQ-9 Reapers. These unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) were deployed in parallel with hundreds of other smaller surveillance and tactical reconnaissance drones in support of US and allied ground forces. More recently, drones churned out by the People’s Republic of China – the CH-3, CH-4, and the latest addition to the CH family, the CH-5 – now compete with other class-A contenders for large chunks of the drone market.

Today, China occupies one of the top spots as a “deadly drone power,” and its growing reach into the global drone market shows no signs of diminishing. The world has provided no shortage of uses for China’s drones, including in countries like Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia as well as other states in the Middle East and the European Union (EU). In addition it has been argued the United Nations (UN) would greatly benefit from a large fleet of surveillance and tactical support drones for its peace and peacekeeping operations.

Much of the surge in China’s drone sales has been the result of restrictive export control exercised by the US government. These restrictions forbid the sale of (armed) drones to nations with a poor human rights record, such as Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt – states that have sought, in the wake of these export controls, to acquire their own unmanned capabilities from other sources.

The Chinese authorities, and in particular its defense industry, has been keen to fill this gap and Beijing has certainly made a lot of progress in this area. Over the past several years, the CH-3 and particularly the CH-4, have become successful export products, making China one of the world’s leading, if not the number one state exporting unmanned weapon systems. Shi Wen of the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics in Beijing identified recent years as a tremendous success story for drone deals with other nations.

Chinese achievements in this domain have set a precedent for future global unmanned arms sales, with the US now providing new unmanned systems to its major coalition allies, and China supplying a significant amount of the market that falls short of the US human rights requirements. China has surpassed Russia, which has traditionally been the primary arms exporter for states that do not abide by US restrictive human rights export rules.

This leading position raises the paradoxical question: Is China becoming responsible for the global acceptance of the practice of targeted killings via armed drone strikes? This practice, over which Western states – the US, the United Kingdom (UK), and Israel – long held dominance, is becoming an accepted global norm. Within the framework of “counterterrorism” (CT) practice, drone strikes have now reached deep into Africa and South East Asia (SEA), as well as other locations not typically considered drone territory.

With no indication that China will halt or limit its drone sales, there is little doubt that states will continue to acquire such hardware over time – especially as their price tag of a few million USD makes them more affordable than ever. This is particularly true for states with limited military budgets looking to acquire any drone they can (i.e., the so-called “poor man’s Predator”). The practice of targeted killings by means of armed drones is rapidly moving beyond its first ring of expansion, and becoming widely practiced as an option to counter any elements that a government deems “terrorist,” a “terrorist threat,” or merely just a “threat.”

With the paradoxical nature of terrorism and counter-terrorism (fraught with unintended consequences), expansive interpretations of terrorism and terrorist threats, as well as extraordinary tactical successes brought about through drone campaigns, Beijing has every reason to continue treating the sale of its armed drones as a lucrative and economic (even political) relationship-building endeavor.

China’s expansion by means of private suppliers has also greatly enhanced its position as a drone exporter, supplementing its ability to meet a wide array of customer needs, including those of private security companies. Drones will in most likelihood continue to contribute to the growth of China’s economy for decades to come with reported investments and exports for 2015/2016 having already soared to hundreds-of-millions of dollars.

Though Beijing has so far adhered to its norm prohibiting the use of targeted killings, China’s drone exports facilitate a widening circle of countries use of weaponized drones as a first-response in the face of terrorist and insurgent threats.  With such a development comes an increasing “kill empowerment” across the globe as well as the likelihood of such strikes taking place beyond the sovereign borders of such customers. Beijing might be able to balance multiple roles in the interim, however its burgeoning exports in this sector inherently contradict its long-lauded posture of non-interference in the security and sovereignty of other states, and is therefore unsustainable over a much longer period.

*This article was previously published as “China’s Drones Are Going Global. So Are Its Drone Strikes” in Asia Times.


Scott N. Romaniuk is a PhD Researcher in the School of International Studies, University of Trento. He is the Editor of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Modern War (2015) and The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy (2017). His research interests include international relations, security studies, terrorism, and political violence. Email: scott.romaniuk@unitn.it.


Tobias J. Burgers is a Doctoral Researcher at the Otto Suhr Institute, Free University Berlin, from which he holds a Master’s in Political Science. His research interests include the impact of cyber and robotic technology on security dynamics, East-Asian security relations, maritime security and the future of conflict. Email: burgers@zedat.fu-berlin.de.

Image Credit: CC by Mathew Stinson/Flickr.