A ‘Game of Drones’ resets the rules in the South China Sea



As the rules of the sovereignty endgame are revved up for reconnaissance and surveillance of the environment and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles or non-lethal drones emits more than a steady buzz in the latest foreign policy salvos among claimant nations against Beijing’s control of the South China Sea.

A few months ago, the Pentagon announced the $47 million sale of 34 ScanEagle drones, made by Boeing, to the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. As many as 12 unarmed drones and equipment are on the way to Malaysia, followed by Indonesia and the Philippines with eight each and Vietnam six, for maritime surveillance and intelligence gathering.

Drone technology is on the rise. The Business Research Company (TBRC), places the global commercial drone market at $3.45 billion in 2018 and at $7.13 billion in 2022. Asia Pacific’s anticipated leap forward as a growth market is because of the rapid increase in awareness for civilian drone applications and relaxation by governments for the use of UAVs for commercial purposes and military applications related to border security.

This rally around drones is against the specter of China fielding a new, far-reaching drone surveillance network in the South China Sea. Their light maneuverable drones are capable of relaying real-time images and video from inaccessible areas to mobile and fixed command-and-control centers, thus reinforcing China’s dominant survey of the contested sea.

At the moment, policy makers and defense analysts seem to agree that non-military threats associated with the lack of access to resources or future environmental disasters are proving to be far more devastating than military threats, since environmental issues cannot be faced by military alliances. As a result, environmental degradation, fishing exploitation, widespread destruction of vulnerable coastal habitats from land reclamation, agricultural and coastal development are considered the real threat to national interests.