The Chinese government has attributed its recent restrictions on drone exports to the country's commitment to “global security” and its desire to end the use of civilian drones in military conflicts.
As Eric Woods, a specialist in export controls at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury College, told The Insider, Beijing wants to create the appearance of control to avoid Western sanctions, but in reality the measures taken are unlikely to prevent Russia and Ukraine from continuing to use Chinese-manufactured unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
According to the expert, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of dual-use goods are now flowing from China to Russia, which is no secret to the US, the EU and Ukraine:
“And if they can show that they are beginning to control their own exports, they can stop new US sanctions against China in the production of microchips, missiles, and other things that are used in Ukraine. I see China saying that they need to show that they can perform export control themselves.
The question is — will it work or not? While they condemn selling DJI drones to Ukraine and Russia, if they don’t also ban it to Poland, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, there won’t be much difference. When Russia buys these same UAVs, they do it in Kazakhstan and third countries.”
The expert recalled that after the sanctions were imposed, it took Russian companies several months to establish new supply channels:
“After sanctions were imposed, it took Russian companies a few months to set up new supply lines. People had to set up new companies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Honestly, I won’t be surprised if the Ukrainians are doing the same thing, given that [these countries are all part of] the former Soviet Union. It’ll be a few months before we see any real impact — I assume [there will] be more evasion through third countries.”
Woods also noted the imposition of export controls is “very interesting and surprising” as it runs counter to China's business culture:
“If you look at the parts lists of those Russian drones — many of them are bought and sold in south China, in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. I don’t know how much of it is politics, but there’s a very different business culture there than in some Western companies. In China, it’s easier to find things. The government is very focused on economic growth, so there’s hesitancy to do anything that might restrict trade. China's implementation of export controls on drones is indeed very interesting and surprising. They’re trying to show that they can be responsible, and that they'll stop the shipments to Russia and Ukraine.
I’m not an expert on Chinese internal politics, but it’ll be intriguing to see how these laws will be implemented locally. Will the police in Hong Kong actually enforce this?”
The Chinese government recently announced that it would be introducing export controls on some drones starting September 1. UAVs with certain specifications will now need to be authorized for export, and the sale of civilian drones for use in combat will be completely banned.
Sergei Tovkach, CEO of drone manufacturer Avianovatsii, earlier told The Insider that China's main focus is on prohibiting the sale of heavy drones capable of carrying munitions and being used as bombers, along with UAVs equipped with multispectral cameras used for aerial reconnaissance.