China curbs drone exports over ‘national security concerns’

By Simone McCarthy, CNN

Hong Kong CNN  —  China will place export controls on drone and drone equipment in order to “safeguard national security and interests,” its commerce ministry announced Monday, in a move that could impact the war in Ukraine.

The restrictions on equipment will require vendors to seek permission to export certain drone engines, lasers, imaging, communications and radar gear, and anti-drone systems. Consumer-grade drones with certain specifications are also subject to the controls, which come into effect September 1.

All civilian drones not included in the controls are prohibited from being exported for military purposes, an unidentified ministry spokesperson said in an online statement.

“China’s modest expansion of the scope of drone control this time is an important measure to demonstrate its commitment as a responsible major country to implement global security initiatives and maintain world peace,” the statement said, adding that China has “consistently opposed the use of civilian drones for military purposes.”

Drones have become an increasingly prominent feature of modern warfare, employed by both Russia and Ukraine as Moscow wages war on its neighbor. Civilian drones, with the potential to be altered or employed for military use, have also come into the spotlight during the conflict.

Earlier this year, CNN found evidence of a downed Chinese-made drone, retrofitted and weaponized, that had been used to target Ukrainian forces.

The maker, Mugin Limited, confirmed to CNN that it was their airframe, calling the incident “deeply unfortunate.”

Some tech bloggers say the machines are known as “Alibaba drones” as they have been available for sale for up to $15,000 on Chinese marketplace websites including Alibaba and Taobao.

China exports drones to several markets, including the United States, and has a sizable domestic drone manufacturing industry.

The raft of new controls follow the release last week of a report compiled by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence which alleges that as of March, China “had shipped more than $12 million in drones and drone parts” to Russia, citing a “third-party analysis” of Russian customs data.

The report, titled “Support Provided by the People’s Republic of China to Russia” and dated 2023, largely cites open source data and Western media reporting to support its claims.

The report does not specify whether the alleged drone shipments were used on the battlefield, but cites shipments of “dual-use” goods.

China’s Foreign Ministry refuted the report on Friday, with a spokesperson saying during a regular briefing that Beijing’s cooperation with Moscow “does not target any third party.”

In April, the Commerce Ministry in a statement denied allegations that China was providing military support to Russia with Chinese drones exported to the battlefield, calling media reports of such activity “deliberate smears.”

China’s controls on certain drones prevented them from being used for “non-peaceful purposes,” a spokesperson said, adding that some Chinese civilian drone companies had also “taken the initiative to suspend their operations in conflict areas” since the “crisis” in Ukraine began.

Western officials have long warned their Chinese counterparts against providing material support for Russia’s war. Beijing has claimed neutrality in the conflict, but continued its diplomatic and economic support of Moscow.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June said Washington had “received assurances from China that it is not and will not provide lethal assistance to Russia for use in Ukraine,” but there were “ongoing concerns” that Chinese firms may be providing technology to Russia that could “advance its aggression in Ukraine.”

Export controls

The measures also come as the United States and China are in the midst of tit-for-tat export restrictions involving high-tech products, following escalating concerns in Washington about the risk posed by Beijing to its national security.

China said its new measures announced Monday do not target “any specific” country.

The restrictions add to existing export controls covering drones that Beijing has implemented over roughly the past two decades, according to Henry Gao, a professor of law at Singapore Management University.

China has also imposed restrictions on the basis of national security in recent years, “especially since the US-China trade war,” he said.

The new measures could “further worsen the tensions between the US and China and make it more difficult for firms in both countries to do business,” Gao added.

More than 50% of drones sold in the US are made by Shenzhen-based DJI, the world’s top drone manufacturer, with DJI models popular among US public safety agencies, according to two US lawmakers. They earlier this year introduced legislation that would restrict the company from operating on US communications infrastructure.

The US last year placed sweeping controls banning Chinese companies from buying advanced chips and chip-making equipment without a license. Beijing last month imposed export controls on two elements essential for manufacturing semiconductors. The controls go into effect August 1.

Drones have already figured into US-China tensions.

The US added DJI to an investment blacklist in 2021, alleging that the firm played a role in facilitating human rights abuses against China’s Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities in the far western region of Xinjiang.

The company was already on the US entity list, barring it from buying American technology. DJI denied having done anything to justify being placed on the list.

On Tuesday, following the ministry announcement, DJI released a statement on its website saying it has never designed or marketed equipment for military purposes and would “actively cooperate” with the new export control policy.

CNN’s Wayne Chang contributed to this report.

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