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    Just a Little Heads Up: China Can Also Kill People with Drones

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Some of the dead were blindfolded. Others were gagged. Some bore the telltale markings of having been cut down point-blank, execution style. When images of the scene hit the Internet, the public was incensed. 

    It was arguably one of the more grisly attacks on Chinese citizens abroad in recent memory, with 13 sailors found slain in October 2011 along the Mekong River on a pair of cargo ships packed full of narcotics. So it didn't take long, according to China's top drug czar, for Beijing to at least entertain the idea of joining the likes of Britian, Israel and the US in launching a drone on foreign soil to track down and incinerate bad guys--in this case, whoevever was behind the massacre. 

    It would have been a dramatic step for China, stark proof of its technological prowess (yes, it is developing killer drones at an "alarming" rate, according to the U.S. military), adding a grisly new dimension to China's global profile as high-tech aggressor, not just flying around the net hacking its enemies, but patrolling the skies and incinerating them sometimes too.

    But as on the cyber battlefield, where America runs the most powerful army of hackers, Beijing would have only been following the U.S.'s drone lead. In fact, China could have adopted the US's rationale for targeting perceived "threats," as laid out in that recently-released white paper

    But it didn't. Why not?

    Instead of using an armed drone to target Naw Kham (pictured), who's suspected of killing 13 Chinese drug mules on the Mekong river in 2011, China captured him alive. He now faces the death pentalty (via)

    When the US decides to engage weaponized drones in its shadow wars throughout Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or wherever else, it does so by bringing those government's to the table, by seeking their support (or at the least, their begrudging, behind-closed-doors approval) of its targetted killing plans. Failing that, it goes ahead with the strikes anyway by claiming that, say, Pakistan's government won't play ball or is simply too inept, militarily, to smash threats. 

    China could've done the same with a drone hit on Naw Kham, the Myanmese drug lord suspected of being behind the 2011 river attacks. It could have either sought the support of Naypyidaw or "credibly claimed," as J. Dana Stuster points out at Foreign Policy, that Myanmar, to borrow language from the Obama administration memo, was "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted."

    So too could it have pulled the imminency card. Kham is a ruthless drug trafficker by all accounts. As Liu Yuejin, director of the public security ministry's anti-drug bureau, told the Global Times, Kham was at-large somewhere in the opium-producing Golden Triangle at the time of China's mulling over whether to use an unmanned aerial vehicle to pulverize the region with 20kg of TNT. For as much sleep China already loses over shoring up its homeland security, it could've easily undergirded a lethal strike with the white paper's nebulous and much-criticized definition of an "imminent threat of violent attack" on domestic soil. 

    True, China presumably would've drawn the rebuke of the West had it actually gone through with drone-striking Kham, though it's not like the People's Republic has ever really cared much for marching to anything but its own drum when it comes to, well, just about anything. With Beidou and the Wing Loon, China's global-positioning service and Reaper-style hunter-killer drone, respectively, growing sharper and sharper, the opportunity was there for the taking. 

    But the only thing to stop China was China itself. The plan to use the killer drone to track and kill Kham was axed "because we were ordered to catch him alive," Liu told the Global Times. Kham, who was captured last April, now faces the death penalty. 

    News report on the Wing Loon and China's drone program writ large

    If anything, pulling the plug suggests that China still would rather take pains to capture bad guys alive than kill them outright. Beijing may just end up killing Kham in the end, of course, after who knows what sort of interrogations or jailtime handlings.

    But the initial restraint is pretty remarkable. Whereas the US probably would've gone the other way--indeed, it's doing so more and more, insisting that its drone strikes abroad are permissible because nine times out of 10 capture simply is not feasible--Chinese authorities trekked out into the bush outside the country's borders to find the man. To think: for all the well-warranted criticism China gets for human rights abuses and agressive behaviors along its borders, it comes out here looking cleaner than the U.S., turning down the quick-and-painless drone option in favor of capturing a suspect and bringing him before the courts, justice served, thank you very much. It could've taken a page from the Obama's administration drone memos, but it didn't.

    There's no telling whether that would've been the case had Kham been laying low inside China. And it's likely only a matter of time before a Chinese drone strike actually happens, potentially even following a legal rubic identical to the US's--and that's under the assumption that maybe it's already happened and we just don't know about it. Who knows? China has a list of bad guys (think not just of Japan but of the Uighurs who were held in Guantanamo before being released to start new lives in Eastern Europe), and it certainly has the chops. The question is, what would and could the rest of the world—especially President Obama—have to say about it? 

    Top: The Wing Loon, one of China's low-cost hunter-killer drones, takes cues from the US's Predator and Reapers (via SCMP) 

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson