The Trump administration has moved ahead with a surveillance drone sale to four US allies in the South China Sea region. The move is intended to curb China’s activities in the region, according to a report by Reuters on Tuesday. According to a Chinese military expert, the move has exposed the real intent of triggering potential tension in order to open up business opportunities for US military enterprises and create employment opportunities in the US.
The Pentagon announced on Friday it would sell 34 ScanEagle drones worth of $47 million to the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. As many as 12 unarmed drones and equipment would go to Malaysia for about $19 million. Indonesia would buy eight drones, the Philippines eight, and Vietnam six. The sales included spare and repair parts, support equipment, tools, training and technical services and the installation of the drones was expected to be completed by March 2022.
According to the report, the ScanEagle drones, made by Boeing, are mainly used for flight surveillance. The drones would afford greater intelligence gathering capabilities in the South China Sea and potentially curb Chinese activity in the region.
According to public information, the ScanEagle is an inexpensive small ship-borne drone that does not rely on runways. It has a long flight time and an autonomous UAV system design. It is mainly used for maritime surveillance and observation, intelligence gathering, target hunting, communication relay and various tactical support tasks. The ScanEagle performs exceptionally well in various missions of the US Navy and Marine Corps.
Reuters reported that the Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan did not name China specifically, but accused “such an actor of destabilizing the region in a speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday”. He went on to say that “ the US would not ignore such behavior”.
The report believed that the surveillance drone sale to US allies in the South China Sea region confirmed the remarks made by Shanahan. In 2018, US President Donald Trump rolled out a long-awaited overhaul of US arms export policy aimed at expanding sales to allies. That initiative eased rules for exporting some types of lethal as well as non-lethal US-made drones to more allies and partners.
Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, said on Tuesday that the Reuters’ report revealed one major purpose as for why the US is keen to provoke tension in the South China Sea through the so-called “freedom of navigation”. The US intends to profit from the conflict, create business opportunities for US military enterprises and improve employment opportunities. The intention is selfish and irresponsible. It is like the past practice by the US in intensifying tensions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the rest of the world can see through this.
An analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity said that drones can be used as a tool to conduct maritime intelligence reconnaissance and collection, as well as scientific research including maritime meteorological observations. But realistically speaking, selling drones to China’s neighboring countries is indeed unfriendly as the US attempts to increase tension in the South China Sea.