Officials in Beijing will treat $47.9 billion in U.S. drone sales approved for Southeast Asia as another effort to dent their claims to the disputed South China Sea, experts believe, and lash back verbally as well as economically.
The U.S. Department of Defense said May 31 American contractor Insitu would sell 34 ScanEagle unmanned air vehicles to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. All four have chafed against China’s coast guard and other vessels over the past decade as they vie for control over the resource-rich sea.
The United States has no claim to the sea, a 3.5-million-square-kilometer waterway between Hong Kong and the island of Borneo, but Washington wants to keep it open for international use. China claims about 90 percent of the sea, where it has developed small islets for military use. The Southeast Asian states lag China in military might.
Already wary of U.S. navy forays into the sea and Washington’s earlier pledges to upgrade military ties around Asia, Beijing will probably respond to the drones with official anti-U.S. statements and increases in economic aid to the drone buyers, which might otherwise shift foreign policy toward Washington, political scientists say.
“I think that Beijing will see (drone sales) as the United States interfering in what China understands is its core interest, the South China Sea, and Beijing will use this as an opportunity to strengthen the domestic narrative that the United States is attempting to challenge China on many of its core interests,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.