Chapter 21: Chinese UAS Proliferation along New Silk Road Sea/ Land routes

Chapter 21 will introduce the evolving Chinese UAS Proliferation along New Silk Road Sea/ Land routes

Student Learning Objectives.  Upon completion of this chapter, students should be able to:

  • Understand the background of building the Chinese government project “The Belt & Road”
  • What Chinese military buildup is occurring to support new Silk Road?
  • How UAS/UAV are involved in the New Silk Road?
  • What is the US involvement in the New Silk Road?

Chinese Government Building the “The Belt and Road”

China has begun to grow the modern-day vision of the Han Dynasty, joining the East to the West. The popularity of the original route grew to over four thousand miles, until collapse in the 18th century. (Arugay, 2017)  During official visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013, “President Xi announced the new Silk Road initiative. The plan was two-fold: there would be an overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road.” (Arugay, 2017) “Initially both were referred to first as the One Belt, One Road initiative but eventually became the Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI).” (Arugay, 2017) Xi Jinping named BRI the “Project of the Century” with an estimated cost of $1.3 trillion by 2027. The project would develop a network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, overseas shipping routes, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, to Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Linking China’s coastal factories and rising consumer class with Central, Southeast and South Asia; with the Gulf States and the Middle East; with Africa; and with Russia and all of Europe.

BRI is at the core of China’s foreign policy strategy and was even added to the Communist Party constitution in 2017. On March 17, 2017, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2344, calling on the international community to strengthen regional economic cooperation through the BRI China has signed agreements with the following organizations: United Nations Development Program, United Nations Economic Social Commission for Asia, and the Pacific World Health Organization. BRI consists of two major routes, Overland Route and Maritime Sea Lanes. The Overland Route was the traditional Route used for centuries Connects Europe through the Mediterranean to Burma and China. With the addition of the second route, Maritime Sea Lanes, the trade path extends from Chinese Eastern coast through the Spratley Islands, around Horn of Africa into the Mediterranean Sea. Sixty-eight countries (two-thirds of the planet’s total population) have signed on to bilateral projects partly funded by China’s policy banks and other state-owned enterprises. BRI continues to be controversial, with persistent warnings that poorer countries will be burdened with unsustainable debts.

The Belt

Chinese firms are building or investing in new highways and coal-fired power plants in Pakistan, ports in Greece and Sri Lanka, gas and oil pipelines in Central Asia, an industrial city in Oman and a multibillion-dollar railway project in Laos. From Myanmar to Israel and from Mauritius to Belgium, China holds ports.

The combination of these routes forms a new economic sphere of influence for China. BRI has the advantage of two primary trade corridors/physical routes. The first route (starting by land) China to Southern Europe Sea and the second leveraging the Port of Shanghai to land-based route in Venice. With the successful completion of BRI, China will be connected with Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America, Central America, and Europe. The growing web of trade routes will extend into at least 76 countries. China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) oversees development of BRI. In total there will be the creation of six economic corridors: New Eurasian Land Bridge, China-Mongolia-Russia, Central Asia-China-West Asia, China-Indochina Peninsula, China-Pakistan and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar. The creation of these economic corridors will be the means of communication, rail highways, seagoing transport, expansion of China’s cyberspace, oil pipelines, and aerospace.

Figure 21-1: New Silk Road Economic Belt 

Source: (Lebrand & Lall, 2019)

Central Role in Road: Kazakhstan

On the border of China, the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, is the world’s largest landlocked country. The capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan, has become the top spot for cross-border investors with $24 billion funds deposited in 2018. In May 2019, forty-three foreign company agreements were signed with Kazakhstan, totaling $8.7 billion. Large investors came from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Singapore and South Korea. In the beginning of the BRI Kazakhstan signed $30 billion worth of trade and investment agreements with China, along with a gas pipeline. This solidified their partnership in the build out of the New Silk Road. On the way to becoming the world’s largest dry port, Khorgos Gateway, allows for goods (anything from a John Deere tractor to Hewlett Packard parts) that have a Chinese point of origin can arrive in Europe in 14 days, faster than the sea and cheaper than the air. The Chinese city, Knorgo, that sits Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is home to International Center for Boundary Cooperation (I.C.B.C.). In the I.C.B.C., goods and people can move freely back and forth, it is considered a duty- and visa-free zone. China plans to build fifty more I.C.B.C.’s in countries from Alegria to Vietnam.

The Belt Achievements to Date

In January 2017, a direct railroad route from Yiwu, China to London, UK, traveled for the first time. The container train carried clothing, bags, and household goods as part of the growing rail network of trade between China in the EU. The network grew in a few years’ time from, 39 rail lines directly connecting 15 cities in China to 16 EU cities to 59 Chinese cities with 49 cities in 15 European countries.

In 2018, Chongqing China reported a 50% increase in rail trips to the EU, pushing the total to over a thousand for the year for that one route. In 2018, the China Europe rail freight service made a total number of 6,363 trips. Overall the freight trains have completed over 14,000 trips.  Total trade between China and other countries along the BRI amounted to six trillion dollars between 2013- 2018. China has directly invested in BRI countries over 90 billion dollars since the beginning of the project. China has achieved the framework for six economic corridors, six connective networks creating close to 300,000 jobs for the host countries. As of April 2018, China and 61 countries have formed 1,023 pairs of sister cities. (Xinhua, 2019)

Figure 21-2: Chongqing Freight Train 

Source: (Belt and Road News, 2019)

Maritime Silk Road (MSR) 

The Road portion of BRI, also referenced as Maritime Silk Road (MSR), focuses on creating a network of ports, through construction, expansion or operation, and the development of portside industrial parks and special economic zones (SEZs). MRI is split into three main arteries:

  1. “China’s coast to Europe through the SCS, the IOR and the Mediterranean Sea, and into the Atlantic.
  2. China’s coast through the SCS to the South Pacific and then onto greater Australia.
  3. Arctic Ocean, passing north-west alongside Russia’s northern coast to connect with the Nordic region and other parts of Europe, and north-east past Canada.”(Arugay, 2017)

The two most strategic areas of MSR involve the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Region. (Arugay, 2017) The announcement of the Silk Road initiative in 2013 by President Xi, part of the plan proposed the build out of the maritime infrastructure, similar to the lines of the ancient Silk Road. The initial pitch of MSR was to help build a community that represents the common concerns, interests and expectations of all trade partners. This community is expected to guide and support a peaceful and stable Asia Pacific landscape. Bringing together the Silk Road Economic Belt, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will Europe and Asia. (Arugay, 2017) Overall, enhance China’s ability to develop economically while limiting external risks, enhance cooperation in non-traditional security areas while maintaining maritime security. The focus would be upgrading the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and extending it to the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Currently the intent of MSR is the same, however the propaganda surrounding MSR is different. Four years later, after facing implications of debt sustainability and tensions with countries over port expansions, China has changed the narrative of the MSR. Refocusing the MRR public relations on world emotions, this part of BRI has gained the support of a global audience. In the same Silk Road spirit, China advocates, “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit”. The core of the MSR is to   exert effort to implement the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the field of coasts and oceans. (Arugay, 2017) As published in Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, China will “embark on a path of green development, ocean-based prosperity, maritime security, innovative growth and collaborative governance.” (Arugay, 2017) MSR is a project that will encompass the following goals:

  • Address marine pollution, marine litter and ocean acidification, and in red tide monitoring and pollution emergency responses.
  • Sponsor/develop, encourage, projects for recycling and low carbon development in maritime sectors.
  • China will support smaller states in adapting to climate change, and assistance in response to various sea related issues including; marine disasters, sea level rise, coastal erosion and marine ecosystem deterioration.
  • MSR will create the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road Blue Carbon Program”. The program will monitor coastal and ocean blue carbon ecosystems, develop technical standards and promote research on carbon sinks.
  • China will partner in reviewing navigational routes, implementing land-based monitoring stations, research the Arctic climate and environmental changes, and provide forecasting models.
  • Establish the Marine Science and Technology Cooperation Partnership Initiative. The initiative will be tasked with researching the key waters and passages along the BRI, forecast deviations and assess impacts by researching the interactions between different weather events and the ocean, and by conducting scientific investigations of the floor of the Indian Ocean. (Arugay, 2017)

These are a few of the highlights of the MSR proposed path of green development. China’s redirection of MSR purpose has gained support on the global stage opening new partners in support and funding. Maritime security is also addressed in Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, we will address this under the section Chinese military buildup is occurring to support new Silk Road. (Arugay, 2017)

China is partnering with multiple countries and their organizations; Blue Partnership for the Oceans, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC/UNESCO), the Partnership in Environment Management of Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA), the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and the International Ocean Institute, to build political trust and contribute to the global ocean cooperative framework. (Arugay, 2017) From this approach, they have achieved progress in developing MSR with Malaysia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Iran, Cambodia, Egypt and Greece. China continues construction of the outposts in the Spratly Islands while controlling disputed areas, holding a consistent coast guard presence in the Senkakus.

Chinese Military Build Up to Support the New Silk Road

China has maintained 6 to 7 % growth in military spending each year for several years. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to achieve impressive progress in sea, air, cyber, and space domains. China has an established a frontline of J-20 low observable combat aircrafts. China has expanded their inventory of PL-15 extended range air-to-air missiles to be equipped with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars.  In April 2019, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China along with thirteen other countries participated in a naval parade. China showcased their 094 Jin Class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine along with one of the eight Type-055 guided-missile destroyers they have commissioned. The Type-055 can carry up to two Z-18 anti-submarine warfare helicopters. They are multi-functional ships that can conduct long-range air defense, anti-surface warfare, anti-air warfare, and anti-submarine warfare missions.

Figure 21-3: Type 55 Collection

Source: (Esennagel, 2018)

It is speculated fifteen of the port projects under the BRI that reach from Indo-Pacific region would give China maritime power. On August 1, 2017, BRI allowed for China to launch their first overseas military base in Djibouti, off the Horn of Africa. Sending a clear signal from Beijing’s intention to expand its military power beyond the Asia Pacific. It is believed the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and the deep seaport in Pakistan will be bases for China’s Navy.

Recently, as part of the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor BRI, Pakistan signed an agreement with China for the creation and production of fighter jets, navigation systems, and other military hardware in factories housed in Pakistan.

Digital Silk Road

As part of MSR, China outlines their plans to strengthen maritime security. This topic is particularly attractive to countries whose economy has suffered at the hands of pirates hijacking their waters and fishing industry. China is introducing the deployment of the BeiDou-2 Chinese global navigation system and remote sensing satellite system to provide satellite positioning and information services. As a result of BRI, development of BeiDou-2, will consist of 35 satellites and scheduled to be fully implemented by 2020. This system, which will rival the U.S. Global Positioning System, has already been adopted by Pakistan, Laos, and Thailand. As part of BRI the BeiDou-2 system will make the exchange of information throughout Asia faster and more convenient. China will make the data from the satellites available to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan along with additional countries of interest. China highlights the adaptation of BeiDou-2, will benefit climate change, mitigation of disaster risk, managing water supplies, making agriculture secure, protecting cultural heritage, encouraging sustainable development in urban areas, managing marine areas, and understanding climate change in the mountains and in the Arctic. (Hao, 2019)

China has proven their ability to deliver assistance in the waterways. With the completion of the Asia-Pacific Gateway (APG) submarine optical fiber, provided great improvement in connectivity of submarine communication. The communications cable system can deliver 54 terabits per second between Mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.

Figure 21-4: Asia Pacific Gateway 

Source: (Fiber Atlantic, 2019)

Drones are a critical part of China’s New Silk Road

China leads the manufacturing commercial and recreational drones. China has solved the industry issue of the flight endurance with the creation of hydrogen fuel cell. In addition, China leads in solving for remote areas, law enforcement, and security. The continued innovation has attracted the following countries to visit MMCUAV, a Chinese company, the market dominating drone manufacture: Armenia, Syria, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Lithuania, the Philippines, Singapore, Russia, and Slovakia. (Fonua, 2019)

Figure 21-5: EFY Technology Drones 

Source: (Fonua, 2019)

Focus grows in Tianjin city located in the Binhai new Area, located in Northern China. The emerging technology hub provides an incubator of scientists and boasts an ideal maritime location along the Yellow Sea. The city has become the main location for integrated circuits, telecommunications, and the National Industrial Cloud Innovation Demonstration Project. (Tianjin Municipal Government, 2019)

In 2018, Tianjin hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions. Dubbed the “Summer Davios”, highlighted the city on the global stage, discussing the area’s advanced research centers and start-ups. The WEF meeting welcomed industry leaders to collaborate and engage with the Tianjin technology leadership. Comparing China’s Bay Area (Tianjin and 10 other cities in China) to Silicon Valley, focused on investment and deepen international collaboration. WEF has established a Global Centre in China, U.S., Japan, and India to encourage the development and deployment of frameworks for several industries including drones.  It should be noted, at the WEF meeting, China announced they issued its first drone delivery permit this year and flying-taxi programs are scheduled to launch in the United States and the Middle East by 2020.

Belt and Road Media tour of evolving Tianjin city took place May 20, 2019. The tour of 27 international journalists from Europe, Asia, and Pacific were escorted by Binhai New Area Communist Party (Publicity and Cyberspace Offices) and Chinese journalists from the People’s Daily newspaper. The new city, still being constructed, of three million has notoriety as the first Free Trade Pilot Zone (Northern China), Maritime gateway for Beijing, second National Comprehensive Reform Pilot Area, and the country’s National Innovation Demonstration Zone. Binhai New Area is targeted to be a smart city by 2021, and global modern city, with innovative strengths and coastal power by 2049. To date, 7,900 science and technology enterprises have made their home in Tianjin city grossing 700 billion yuan in 2018. The technology hub has advanced China’s Kylin Operating System (state sponsored commercially independent operating system) and the Phytium processing units. The city provides an area of growth for EFY Technology. The company was founded in 2015 and is currently in Series A of funding, at $15.8 Million. (Crunchbase, 2018) EFY Technology researches, develops, tests, unmanned or automated flight control systems. Days before the media tour (May 16-19, 2019) Tianjin city hosted the World Intelligent Congress. There EFY Technology kicked off Tianjin Intelligent Night with 500 plus UASs in a spectacular sortie to create art and words in the sky, lighting up the night. UAS performance team has completed thousands of similar sorties events in more than 10 provinces and cities such as Tianjin, Shandong, Hunan and Jiangxi. The next step, working with China Mobile, to integrate 5G technology to bring security, stability, and ensure the unmanned aerial devices are interference-prone. (CO, 2019)

In Plain Sight: China Drones Manufacturers

The BRI has brought the opportunity in physical land and sea, but as we uncover advancement in scientific intelligence. While BRI is putting on displays of UAS lighting up the night, behind the scenes this new wave of UAS are more powerful than its predecessors. The global commercial drone market is dominated by Chinese manufacturers. The commercial drones are not only used for hobby but by law enforcement, government agencies (not only U.S.), businesses, and first responders. The commercial UAS can compromise personal data, share information, detail images of critical infrastructure, national security activities and sites. The drone data is uploaded to the cloud, with the user having complete control over the data. However, some argue the data is also available to the manufacture.  Recently it was stated 80% of all drones in U.S. and Canada are from the Chinese manufacture DJI. (Shortell, 2019) DJI plans to begin assembling the drones in California, to be reviewed under the U.S. Trade Agreements Act to resume a partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The reality of banning Chinese drones from the U.S. is not realistic. Currently all fifty states use DJI drones in some official capacity (farming, roads, bridge inspection, etc.). United Kingdom police forces have been using DJI drones since 2017, despite the warning by the U.S. government regarding the leak of sensitive information.

On a larger scale, China’s military drone manufacturing continues to grow in demand. The selective drone export policy of the U.S. has provided the opportunity for Chinese to supply drones to countries not authorized to purchase from the U.S. (also at lower cost). China requires their military drone customers to be state actors. They give priority to countries using the technology for counterterrorism.  China views all countries in the Middle East as customers, they have not “chosen a side”. The Chinese military drones operate by connecting to China’s satellites, presenting a challenge for countries that are U.S. aligned.

 Figure 21-6: Map of Countries in the Middle East with Armed Drones and their Manufacturing Origin

Source: (Tabrizi & Justin , 2018)

Several countries across the Middle East have acquired armed drones either by purchasing them from China (Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) or by building them domestically (Israel, Iran and Turkey). (Tabrizi & Justin , 2018) Outside of not holding the Middle East countries to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), China also sells armed drones cheaper and provides training per the buyers need. Their U.S. counterparts have better performance and are more advanced but not available to the open market. China’s hold in this area could hinder U.S. in the areas of warfare. China has eight counter drone products available to the world market. With acting agents, for example Emily Liu[1], counter-drone capability shopping has become common place. Emily Liu’s was caught purchasing on the behalf of Iran shopping for U.S. electronic components critical to aviation. June 2019, Iran shot down a U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk, using Western technology. Emily Liu is one agent among many, arms continue to build in the Middle East with China driving the market.

U.S. involvement in the New Silk Road

The U.S. dismisses BRI and does not participate in any Belt and Road conferences. U.S. views the project as a power play to control poor countries by offering improvement at an unrealistic cost. BRI has momentum and continues to grow, opening trade routes, expanding infrastructure, and changing the shape of global economy. The U.S. is at risk of weakened economy with lower exports to China. At the moment China’s BRI stronghold appears to be scattered and disorganized, however this will change. Once the BRI countries begin to align with China’s government the U.S. will have to rely on their allies in the region, that participate in BRI, to help steer the initiative. This is not a solid plan.

Digital Belt and Road

The Digital Belt and Road developed from the advances in infrastructure from BRI. The U.S> has openly criticized the digital branch as a platform for surveillance, through facial recognition and other information gathering tactics. The U.S. fails to provide any alternatives, proposing a global standard. Therefore, China continues to develop and implement. No doubt China’s greatest strength in the promotion of science is its willingness to abide by international treaties even as the United States is actively abandoning them. (Pastreich, 2019) At the forefront of the Digital Belt and Road, 5G wireless technology, will be launched by China. Huawei Technologies Cos Ltd, a Chinese company, holds the greatest amount of 5G patents. The U.S. has concerns Huawei along with ZTE have spying capabilities that threaten the West.


China’s BRI continues to move sound and steady across the East, spreading the environmental messages of green and blue. BRI on the surface brings hope, security, and boosted economy to smaller countries in need. The open trade routes across land and sea bring advantages to state actors and smaller settlements. BRI installation and upgrade in technology and infrastructure are attractive to all parties. BRI has given China the global spotlight to feature their advancements to sell in the global market space. For years, before the kickoff of BRI, China has seen the gain across land, sea, and economy as the direct plan to outside the U.S. as a superpower. Slowly and patiently China has enticed with the ability to produce and sell at a lower cost, allowing some sectors to become dependent on Chinese factories and products. The U.S. is feeling the impact of their own money focused commercial enterprises. As a result, China’s telecom and commercial drones dominate the global marketplace threatens U.S. interest in the globe and at home. Additional limitations U.S. self-implemented have resulted in a possible disadvantage among our enemies and allies in the Middle East. The U.S. can no longer ignore BRI and will need to start to take steps to maintain their place on the world stage.

Discussion Questions

  1. China is investing a huge amount of money in the BRI and the use of drone technology. What strategic and tactical goals do they realistically expect to accomplish?
  2. What will slow China’s progress on the BRI? What is the best way for U.S. and Allied forces to apply counterpressure and counter ISR?


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  1. China-based procurement agent Emily Liu and four associated entities pursuant to E.O. 13382 for proliferation activities related to a key supporter of Iran's military.  Emily Liu has provided, or attempted to provide, financial, material, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of, Iran's Shiraz Electronics Industries (SEI).


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