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China's drone use heightens concerns

| Friday, May 3, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

BEIJING — Determined to kill or capture a murderous Mekong River drug lord, China's security forces considered a tactic they had never tried before: calling a drone strike on his remote hideaway deep in the hills of Myanmar.

The attack did not happen — the man was later captured and brought to China for trial — but the fact that authorities were considering such an option cast new light on China's unmanned aerial vehicle program, which has been quietly percolating for years and now appears to be moving into overdrive.

Chinese aerospace firms have developed dozens of drones, known also as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Many have appeared at air shows and military parades, including some that bear an uncanny resemblance to the Predator, Global Hawk and Reaper models used with deadly effect by the U.S. Air Force and CIA. Analysts say that although China still trails the United States and Israel, the industry leaders, its technology is maturing rapidly and on the cusp of widespread use for surveillance and combat strikes.

China's move into large-scale drone deployment displays its military's growing sophistication and could challenge U.S. military dominance in the Asia-Pacific. It also could elevate the threat to neighbors with territorial disputes with Beijing, including Vietnam, Japan, India and the Philippines. China says its drones are capable of carrying bombs and missiles as well as conducting reconnaissance, potentially turning them into offensive weapons in a border conflict.

China's increased use of drones adds to concerns about the lack of internationally recognized standards for drone attacks. The United States has widely employed drones as a means of eliminating terror suspects in Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula.

“China is following the precedent set by the U.S. The thinking is that, ‘If the U.S. can do it, so can we. They're a big country with security interests and so are we,' ” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior fellow at the arms transfers program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, or SIPRI.

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