It’s getting easier for China to sell its new “hunter-killer” drone — the CH-4. The Middle East has proven to be China’s most lucrative market for drone sales with states likes Saudi Arabia, among others, seeking to acquire these weapons, possibly with the aim of combating terrorists and insurgents in the region.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman visited Beijing last month to sign a number of trade deals and contracts that included an agreement for combat drones to be manufactured for the Saudi Kingdom. The drones will be built by China’s large Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which provided drones for Saudi Arabia in the past. The agreement strengthens the drone relationship between the two states because it will lead to the establishment of a Chinese-run factory in the Saudi Arabia. CASC already operates two CH-4 drone factories overseas, with a facility currently based in Pakistan and another in Myanmar.
The development and subsequent transfer of Chinese drones will be used for multiple purposes, but will primarily serve as security instruments. Because Chinese-made drones could be built to carry military equipment or modified to serve civilian purposes, distinguishing between those labeled “civilian purpose” drones and “military purpose” drones becomes problematic.
For the moment it is unclear if Saudi Arabia will have the right to share its drones with other countries or sell them off as it chooses. But the establishment of facilities in the Middle East signals further interest in China selling its drone to other states and possibly even non-state actors (NSAs). Such efforts will likely play a considerable role in the spillover of technology and hardware for combat purposes.
Drone rivalry possible in the Middle East
Saudi Arabia has been playing an increasingly regional role in the Middle East, foremost through its intervention in Yemen, and therefore indicates the potential for further interventionist policies. In light of Houthi retaliation using Iranian-built drones, there is a need to question the possibility not only of an armed-drone rivalry or race in the Middle East but also the application and exchange of force by means of these weaponized machines.
Spillover presents all states with security and defense challenges. As more states procure these weapons, the potential for violent non-state actors (VSNAs), like the Islamic State, acquiring them increases. Those groups need not use them according to the same complex procedures and within similar operational platforms as the United States and Israel. Rather, VSNAs like Yemen’s Houthi movement could simply outfit their units with explosive devices, turning them into cheap and convenient kamikaze instruments.
There is little doubt that tension and conflict between states and NSAs alike in the Middle East are rising. Several months ago, Houthi forces attached explosives to an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) (or drone boat) and used the vehicle in an attack against a Saudi warship. Because the Houthi are incapable of building these types of vehicles, the group would have to acquire them from other sources. A second possible source could be a state wanting to increase its sales of all types of unmanned systems. Thus, the escalation of conflict between groups can present China, in this case, with a lucrative opportunity.
China is in a position to profit from the escalation of conflict situations on one hand and increase its purchase market on the other, especially as the US government has restricted its sales of armed drones. Accordingly, China could reap another benefit by undermining the rationale behind the US government’s restriction on drone sales, which is aimed at maintaining the United States’ military advantage.
While Saudi Arabia has the financial resources to purchase Chinese-made drones that bear a striking resemblance to those made by the US, these units do not carry the same price tag as their US counterparts. China’s drones are in high demand, with Egypt, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Jordan also seeking to acquire inexpensive means of intervening beyond their borders.
US drone sales restrictions helps China
With the drone revolution proliferating, and the US arms-export restrictions remaining in place, there is a significant possibility that China will increase its market share, and could become one of the dominant sellers and suppliers — specifically the market segment of armed drones where obviously stricter US export regulations exist.
China’s drone sales to Saudi Arabia fits within the larger framework of Beijing’s pivot to and extensive interests in the Middle East. Concurrently, this scenario illustrates the extent to which China’s defense industry has modernized, improved in quality, and is now considered a reliable and worthy supplier. A few decades ago, the quality of China’s defense industry was considered low, capable of producing “simpler” military goods often of inferior quality.
Although China has a way to go before it finds itself on par with the US, it has undeniably moved far beyond its previous position in production qualities. China is now capable of producing advanced products (i.e., a 5th generation fighter jet, drones, and aircraft carriers) and exporting the infrastructure needed for them. This combination and capabilities and initiative illustrates China progress.
China’s drones serve a distinctive purpose when outfitted with the requisite military capabilities. However, that does not mean its drones have to be cutting-edge military technology or sell at top price. When the aim is simply to carry out an attack against an object like a warship or conduct a kamikaze attack against a civilian target such as a stadium or a street full of people, even the simplest of drones would do the trick.
*This op-ed was co-authored with Tobias J. Burgers.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.