Disputed islands in the East China Sea are likely to become a major geopolitical flashpoint in the near-future. Tokyo controls the islands and refers to them as Senkaku, while Beijing considers them Chinese territory and calls them Diaoyu. The controversy mirrors competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, also the subject of recent international sabre-rattling.
China is rapidly expanding its nascent drone program, while Japan is set to purchase Global Hawk drones from the U.S. Both countries state the unmanned planes are to be used for “surveillance” , but the likelihood of conflict is real. According to the Guardian, “Chinese surveillance planes flew near the islands four times in the second half of December, according to Chinese state media, but were chased away each time by Japanese F-15 fighter jets”. The tension is fuelled by the election of Japan’s conservative administration, which has increased defense spending for the first time in over a decade – with eyes on the acquisition of drones, as well as China’s own increases in spending.
China appears unbowed. “Japan has continued to ignore our warnings that their vessels and aircraft have infringed our sovereignty,” top-level marine surveillance official Sun Shuxian said in an interview posted to the State Oceanic Administration’s website, according to Reuters. “This behaviour may result in the further escalation of the situation at sea and has prompted China to pay great attention and vigilance.”
Ominously, in October of 2012, Chinese state media claimed that the country would construct 11 drone bases along the coastline by 2013.
While “drone-on-drone” warfare may seem the preserve of science fiction at the moment, the domain of poor Star Wars prequels, the reality may not be that far off, especially given the enormous political-economic push around the world. What’s more, in areas around the East and South China sea, there are a number of nations assembling an unmanned armada to flex their geopolitical muscles over islands that may unlock future oil reserves.
Indeed, the so-called “climate wars” of the future may even be fought by proxy; waged by flying robots and underwater vessels controlled from thousands of miles away.
Imagination often lags behind defense contractors in these matters.