The Drone War Comes to Asia
How China sparked a dangerous unmanned arms race.
It’s now been a year since Japan’s previously ruling liberal government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands to prevent a nationalist and provocative Tokyo mayor from doing so himself. The move was designed to dodge a potential crisis with China, which claims "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands it calls the Diaoyus.
Disregarding the Japanese government’s intent, Beijing has reacted to the "nationalization" of the islands by flooding the surrounding waters and airspace with Chinese vessels in an effort to undermine Japan’s de facto administration, which has persisted since the reversion of Okinawa from American control in 1971. Chinese incursions have become so frequent that the Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF) are now scrambling jet fighters on a near-daily basis in response.
In the midst of this heightened tension, you could be forgiven for overlooking the news early in September that Japanese F-15s had again taken flight after Beijing graciously commemorated the one-year anniversary of Tokyo’s purchase by sending an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) toward the islands. But this wasn’t just another day at the office in the contested East China Sea: this was the first known case of a Chinese drone approaching the Senkakus.
Without a doubt, China’s drone adventure 100-miles north of the Senkakus was significant because it aggravated already abysmal relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Japanese officials responded to the incident by suggesting that Japan might have to place government personnel on the islands, a red line for Beijing that would have been unthinkable prior to the past few years of Chinese assertiveness.
But there’s a much bigger and more pernicious cycle in motion. The introduction of indigenous drones into Asia’s strategic environment — now made official by China’s maiden unmanned provocation — will bring with it additional sources of instability and escalation to the fiercely contested South and East China Seas. Even though no government in the region wants to participate in major power war, there is widespread and growing concern that military conflict could result from a minor incident that spirals out of control.
Unmanned systems could be just this trigger. They are less costly to produce and operate than their manned counterparts, meaning that we’re likely to see more crowded skies and seas in the years ahead. UAVs also tend to encourage greater risk-taking, given that a pilot’s life is not at risk. But being unmanned has its dangers: any number of software or communications failures could lead a mission awry. Combine all that with inexperienced operators and you have a perfect recipe for a mistake or miscalculation in an already tense strategic environment.
The underlying problem is not just the drones themselves. Asia is in the midst of transitioning to a new warfighting regime with serious escalatory potential. China’s military modernization is designed to deny adversaries freedom of maneuver over, on, and under the East and South China Seas. Although China argues that its strategy is primarily defensive, the capabilities it is choosing to acquire to create a "defensive" perimeter — long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, submarines — are acutely offensive in nature. During a serious crisis when tensions are high, China would have powerful incentives to use these capabilities, particularly missiles, before they were targeted by the United States or another adversary. The problem is that U.S. military plans and posture have the potential to be equally escalatory, as they would reportedly aim to "blind" an adversary — disrupting or destroying command and control nodes at the beginning of a conflict.
At the same time, the increasingly unstable balance of military power in the Pacific is exacerbated by the (re)emergence of other regional actors with their own advanced military capabilities. Countries that have the ability and resources to embark on rapid modernization campaigns (e.g., Japan, South Korea, Indonesia) are well on the way. This means that in addition to two great powers vying for military advantage, the region features an increasingly complex set of overlapping military-technical competitions that are accelerating tensions, adding to uncertainty and undermining stability.
This dangerous military dynamic will only get worse as more disruptive military technologies appear, including the rapid diffusion of unmanned and increasingly autonomous aerial and submersible vehicles coupled with increasingly effective offensive cyberspace capabilities.
Of particular concern is not only the novelty of these new technologies, but the lack of well-established norms for their use in conflict.
Thankfully, the first interaction between a Chinese UAV and manned Japanese fighters passed without major incident. But it did raise serious questions that neither nation has likely considered in detail. What will constrain China’s UAV incursions from becoming increasingly assertive and provocative? How will either nation respond in a scenario where an adversary downs a UAV? And what happens politically when a drone invariably falls out of the sky or "drifts off course" with both sides pointing fingers at one another? Of most concern, how would these matters be addressed during a crisis, with no precedents, in the context of a regional military regime in which actors have powerful incentives to strike first?
These are not just theoretical questions: Japan’s Defense Ministry is reportedly looking into options for shooting down any unmanned drones that enter its territorial airspace.
Resolving these issues in a fraught strategic environment between two potential adversaries is difficult enough; the United States and China remain at loggerheads about U.S. Sensitive Reconnaissance Operations along China’s periphery. But the problem is multiplying rapidly. The Chinese are running one of the most significant UAV programs in the world, a program that includes Reaper- style UAVs and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs); Japan is seeking to acquire Global Hawks; the Republic of Korea is acquiring Global Hawks while also building their own indigenous UAV capabilities; Taiwan is choosing to develop indigenous UAVs instead of importing from abroad; Indonesia is seeking to build a UAV squadron; and Vietnam is planning to build an entire UAV factory.
One could take solace in Asia’s ability to manage these gnarly sources of insecurity if the region had demonstrated similar competencies elsewhere. But nothing could be further from the case. It has now been more than a decade since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China signed a declaration "to promote a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment in the South China Sea," which was meant to be a precursor to a code of conduct for managing potential incidents, accidents, and crises at sea. But the parties are as far apart as ever, and that’s on well-trodden issues of maritime security with decades of legal and operational precedent to build upon.
It’s hard to be optimistic that the region will do better in an unmanned domain in which governments and militaries have little experience and where there remains a dearth of international norms, rules, and institutions from which to draw.
The rapid diffusion of advanced military technology is not a future trend. These capabilities are being fielded — right now — in perhaps the most geopolitically dangerous area in the world, over (and soon under) the contested seas of East and Southeast Asia. These risks will only increase with time as more disruptive capabilities emerge. In the absence of political leadership, these technologies could very well lead the region into war.
Shawn Brimley is the director of studies at the Center for a New American Security and served as director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff and at the Pentagon during the Obama administration.