Drone War: China, Vietnam, And Philippines Turn To Unmanned Flights In South China Sea ‘Mexican Standoff’

Kenneth Lim

"Drone war" appears to be building up in the South China Sea as China, Vietnam, and the Philippines jostle for advantage in their "Mexican standoff." According to an expert, their turning to unmanned aerial vehicle technology reflects new terms of global competition changing the rules of the game for many long-simmering conflicts and rivalries.

Drone expert Michael Boyle, a senior fellow at the United States-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in a Voice of America interview that aired on February 5 that the area over the disputed South China Sea islands is prime for an airspace war. He echoed other experts who believe U.A.V.s will influence tussles in the South China Sea.

"They have a number of advantages: Drones can identify changes on the ground in the islands and provide photographic evidence of military build-ups."

V.O.A. News indicated that China's drones are being employed for videography during marriages, courier delivery, and security surveillance in major industrial projects. Drone production by the country's roughly 400 manufacturers jumped nine times within one year during 2015, indicating demand growth for civilian use, not to mention war application.

"Many of the Chinese drone manufacturers are selling small U.A.V.s capable of battlefield reconnaissance and some that can now be equipped with missiles."

The Vietnamese drone prototype was completed on November 1, 2015 and slated for flight testing over the South China Sea in mid-2016. Roughly in the same class as the Israeli Aerospace Industries' Heron drone, the Vietnamese version allows for war-efficient optical and radar surveillance systems.

Defense World reports that the Philippines has a military modernization project with Motorola-based Triton Communication Corporation for a fleet of U.A.V.s. The acquisition of drones worth $14 million comes along with air surveillance radars worth $56 million, amphibious assault vehicles worth $53 million, and Air Force full motion flight simulators worth $5 million.

Vietnam has suffered numerous fatalities while defending traditional fishing outposts on reefs seized by China in the Paracel chain of the South China Sea. The Philippines has suffered the indignity of losing three known features within its exclusive economic zone, invaded by China invoking an ambiguous historical entitlement. With drone technology adding to China's overwhelming military advantage over its neighbors, Vietnam and the Philippines are caught in a tug-of-war between relying on world court intervention or beefing up their limited self-defense capabilities.

A drone war appears to be in the making from this "Mexican Standoff" in the South China Sea.

[Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]