THE SEIZING OF a US Navy underwater drone by the PLA-Navy points to the potential for a small incident to take on greater import as Sino-American relations become more uncertain ahead of Donald Trump assuming the US presidency.
The drone was conducting a military oceanographic survey to map underwater channels in what the US claims are open waters some 160 kilometres off the Philippines, but China considers to be its own.
The incident comes hard on the heels of the publication of satellite photographs showing anti-aircraft batteries on seven of China’s artificial islands in the South China Seas and US President-elect Donald Trump’s questioning of Washington’s commitment to the ‘One China’ policy and his taking of a telephone call earlier from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.
Having had the unpredictability card played against it, Beijing may be countering in kind.
IT IS A sign of the increasing sophistication of the country’s technology that Beijing is imposing controls on exports of some advanced drones and supercomputers. Or at very least a sign that Beijing wants its technology so regarded.
From the middle of this month, export licenses will be required for drones that can fly 1,500 meters high, stay airborne for longer than an hour and handle strong winds. Licences will be granted or withheld on grounds of national security, which will, in the manner of the times, inevitably be judged case by case.
There is also a bit of tit-for-tat at play. The export licensing scheme also covers supercomputer chips and follows US restrictions on computer hardware that can be sold to China. China’s Tianhe-2 is currently the world’s fastest supercomputer though the Obama administration has announced a programme to reclaim that title for the U.S. The Americans have concerns that the Tianhe-2 is being used for nuclear-weapons development
Meanwhile, China has become a leader in drone manufacturing. DJI Technology, the Shenzhen-based company whose drones have been flown (uninvited) into the White House grounds in Washington and onto the roof of the office of the Japanese prime minister in Tokyo, had sales of $500 million in 2014, more than any another maker of unmanned aircraft.
Sales of its best-selling Phantom line of commercial drones (seen above mounted with a GoPro camera) are unlikely to suffer from the new regulations, and so DJI will remain on track to become this year the first drone maker to record $1 billion in sales.
Update: DJI has 70% of the world market for commercial drones and is valued at $10 billion, according to an FT interview with one of its earliest outside investors, Neil Shen, who runs the China arm of the Silicon Valley investment firm, Sequoia Capital.
REPORTS COMING OUT of Seoul about four North Korean drones that crashed in South Korea raise an awkward question for two Chinese companies. How did what appear to be China TranComm’s SKY-09P and MicroFly’s UV10CAM drones, or knock-offs of same, end up in the employ of the North Korean military?
South Korean intelligence says the unmanned arial vehicles were programmed to fly from the North over South Korean military installations, photograph them, and then return to the North. The North Korea Tech blog, which did the early work of publicly sourcing the drones, has pictures and more detail.
Both drone models are sold commercially, but should not have been sold to North Korea in contravention of international sanctions against Pyongyang. China TranComm, for one, has denied any involvement. South Korean press reports suggest the drones were imported through middle men in Hong Kong, a well trodden trade route, and then remodeled or possibly copied.
These are not sophisticated machines, and there has been speculation that the North Korean military have been making a version of their own since 2010. The three SKY-09Ps or SKY-09P clones, if that is what they were, found in South Korea crashed because of technical malfunctions while the UV10CAM ran out of fuel.
Pyongyang’s drones have sufficient range, when not falling out of the sky, to reach the south of the peninsula. The fear is that they could be used to carry a deadlier payload than a digital camera.