Beijing will treat the $ 47.9 billion in sales of US drones approved for Southeast Asia as another effort to deny its claims on the South China Sea and, according to experts, will respond verbally and economically.
The US Department of Defense announced on May 31 that US drone contractor Insitu would sell 34 ScanEagle unmanned aircraft to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The four countries have clashed with the Chinese Coast Guard and other vessels over the past decade as they compete for control over that resource-rich maritime area.
The United States government has no right to the sea, a 3,500 million square kilometer route between Hong Kong and the island of Borneo, but Washington wants to keep it open for international use. China claims approximately 90% of the sea, where the government has developed small islets for military use. The countries of Southeast Asia do not compete with China in terms of military power.
Already distrustful of US naval incursions and Washington’s previous pledges to improve military ties across Asia, Beijing will likely respond to unmanned aircraft with official statements against the United States. and increases in economic aid to buyers of drone aircraft, which could otherwise change foreign policy toward Washington, according to political scientists
“I think Beijing will perceive (drone sales) as the United States interfering in what China understands as its central interest, the China Sea, and Beijing will use it as an opportunity to strengthen the domestic narrative that the United States is trying to challenge to China in most of its core interests, “said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international politics and international studies at the International Christian University in Tokyo.
Drones for China’s rivals
The US contractor has approval to sell 12 drones to Malaysia, eight to Indonesia, eight to the Philippines, and six to Vietnam, according to the Defense Department website. The delivery dates for 2022 include spare payloads, spare parts, support equipment, and hardware training that verifies China’s maritime activity from the air, the website details.
Indonesia has no right to the sea, but periodically the government challenges Chinese ships near the peripheral Natuna islands.
The other three unmanned aircraft receivers claim water rights that China calls its own. China cites the historical use of ma, the other countries use limits of exclusive economic zones defined by international law. Vietnam and the Philippines have confronted Chinese ships in the past. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed is taking a firmer stance towards China than his predecessor.
Officials from the US government have combined more than a year of tariff pressure on China with multiple passages of naval vessels across the sea. At the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, interim defense secretary Patrick Shanahan pledged more military cooperation in Asia and criticized the Chinese expansion.
The sales of drones correspond to a “bigger narrative” from the point of view of China, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
China may protest briefly against drone sales and will probably stir domestic opinion in its favor, analysts say.
“I think what we will see is that the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will react, but probably not so much,” said Araral. “The Chinese government will say ‘what else is it that the drones can discover that they can not find satellites or that people on land do not know?'”
Drones are not expected, being only for surveillance, to provoke a military response or cause China to backtrack the last decade of maritime expansion. China uses its own drones and radar systems at sea, which are highly prized for fishing, oil, gas and trade routes.
“Of course they do not like it, but is that really going to change the tide in the South China Sea?” Replied Yun Sun, senior associate of the East Asia program at the strategic Stimson Center in Washington, DC
“Probably not, especially if we consider the relationship that China currently has with these Southeast Asian countries. Everything seems to be under control, at least from the Chinese perspective, “he said.
More help to Southeast Asia
Beijing will seek to increase that control by strengthening its own attractiveness among Southeast Asian countries, possibly forcing them to choose between China and the United States, some analysts say.
The attraction will be economic. China, supported by the second largest gross domestic product in the world, has helped build infrastructure in Malaysia and the Philippines to date, while helping Vietnam expand tourism. Part of the aid is in line with the 1 trillion Chinese pan-Eurasia Belt and Road Initiative to open trade routes through new infrastructure.
The United States lacks the level of economic relations of China in Southeast Asia.
The communist leadership may try to “fracture” a negotiation of a 10-member bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes four of the drone-buying countries, Nagy said.