China's Killer Drones Didn't Kill a Drug Lord, but Obama's Drones Could Have

Those with an eye on President Obama's targeted killing program say that the U.S. Justice Department's recently leaked "white paper" justifying drone targets would have allowed for China, if it used America's new legal boundaries with its own killer technology, to execute a wanted kingpin from the sky.

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Today's news that Chinese authorities now have advanced navigation and weaponry to kill suspected criminals in a manhunt was as notable for what China can do — target a Myanmar drug kingpin suspected in the killing of 13 Chinese soldiers, unmanned, and from above — as for what it didn't: actually assassinate him with a drone. A look inside China's search for the notorious Naw Kham in today's Global Times reveals that a plan "to use an unmanned aircraft to carry 20 kilograms of TNT to bomb" the hideout of the Golden Triangle's most wanted gang lord "was rejected, because the order was to catch him alive," as Liu Yuejin, director of China's Public Security Ministry's anti-drug bureau, told the paper. But those with an eye on President Obama's foreign policy and targeted killing program say that the U.S. Justice Department's recently leaked and much critiqued "white paper" justifying drone targets would have allowed for China, if it used America's new legal boundaries with its own killer technology, to execute Kham from the sky.

To be clear, most U.S. drug enforcement involving drones centers on unarmed surveillance aircraft, and the Obama administration has yet to make public the full 50-page legal memo on which the "white paper" is based, despite Obama's insistence in his State of the Union address that he would be "even more transparent." But perhaps the biggest concern from critics with the white paper is that a lethal strike overseas could target "an associated force" or an individual who "present[s] an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States" as long as "capture is infeasible." That remains pretty blurry, but given the ongoing difficulty and overseas nature of the Chinese chase for Kham — "the first time that Chinese police were conducting a manhunt for criminals who were all foreigners based overseas," Global Times reports — capture seemed difficult... until China turned the other way in the ramping of a drone war and apprehended him in November anyway.

As Foreign Policy's J. Dana Stuster writes, China could argue that going after Kham could is not unlike the way the "United States justified targeting al Qaeda militants tied to the bombing of the USS Cole with drone strikes, beginning Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002 (well before the white paper was authored)." Stuster adds that a strike also could have been justified based on the argument that no one was helping to capture Kham:

Much like the U.S. official rationale as for strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, China could have either sought Naypyidaw's support [in Myanmar] or credibly claimed that the government was "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted," in the words of the Obama administration's white paper on its own targeted killing program. 

The ultimate decision by Chinese law enforcement — one of restraint — gains context when you realize just how wanted Kham had become. The New York Times's Jane Perlez outlines his notoriety:

China’s law enforcement officials were under pressure from an outraged public to take action after 13 Chinese sailors on two cargo ships laden with narcotics were killed in October 2011 on the Mekong River. Photos of the dead sailors, their bodies gagged and blindfolded and some with head wounds suggesting execution-style killings, circulated on China’s Internet.

It was one of the most brutal assaults on Chinese citizens abroad in recent years. Naw Kham, a member of Myanmar’s ethnic Shan minority and a major drug trafficker, was suspected in the killings.

To be sure, just because China didn't rain fiery death from above this time doesn't mean that the Kham hunt hasn't proved that China can. The latest Chinese military technology was on display in November at an air show, with two new models very similar to U.S. Predator and Reaper drones. The Wing Loon drone, pictured above, comes in at a fraction of the cost of its Reaper cousin, and as Perlez notes, the CH-4 model can cover the distance over an area in dispute between China and Japan. So it appears that China has finally caught up to U.S. drone technology, if not exactly its ambitious justifications for using it — not even in one of the greatest manhunts known to the Far East. As the Times's "kill list" reporter Scott Shane asked of the drone arms race in the midst of China's catching-up — and the Kham manhunt — in 2011, "If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the United States say?" Well, we might have the beginnings of an answer now.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.