China bans export of drones some countries have already banned anyway
Some say retaliation for sanctions, but Beijing says it just wants world peace
China introduced restrictions on Monday that mean would-be exporters will require a license to ship certain drones and related equipment out of the Middle Kingdom.
The restricted equipment includes drones that weigh 4kg without cargo or accessories, as well as craft that carry kit capable of emitting projectiles or certain types of cameras or laser range-finders, or that can operate beyond line of sight. All of these seem suspiciously military-sounding applications, though we're sure there are perfectly innocent civilian applications for drones that can fire laser-guided projectiles. Duck hunting, maybe?
The requirement to secure export licenses comes into force on September 1.
A spokesperson clarified that all civilian drones that are not included in the control are banned from export for military purposes, according to the Ministry of Commerce website.
The Ministry said that “for export companies with well-run internal compliance systems, the competent authorities will actively adopt convenient measures such as general licensing.”
The move is widely seen as retaliation for US sanctions – including those on semiconductors, telecom equipment and more. China has already placed export controls on semiconductor precursors gallium, germanium and some key compounds of both. A Chinese official warned that those restrictions are "just the beginning."
Chinese drones aren't wanted
The ban may be welcomed in some quarters, where Chinese drones are felt to represent a security risk.
India has banned drone imports entirely – a move possibly intended to head off the entry of Chinese players – and Lithuania won't allow public procurement of Chinese flyers.
The US Army banned China's most prolific and visible drone-maker, DJI, way back in 2017. And in 2021 the Pentagon rated Chinese drones a security risk. Later in the same year US authorities imposed a ban on investment in Chinese drone manufacturers.
And in June 2023, US senators Marsha Blackburn and Mark Warner introduced legislation that aims to bar the US Federal Aviation Administration from using Chinese drones.
"Taxpayer dollars should never fund drones manufactured in regions that are hostile toward the US," said Blackburn.
According to Blackburn and Warner, over half of the drones sold in the US are made by Chinese company DJI Technologies.
Beijing's ban may therefore already have been adopted voluntarily by some of the biggest potential buyers of Chinese autonomous aircraft.
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Despite any allegations of retaliation, China explained that the export controls were introduced in the name of national security and do not target any specific country.
"The Chinese government has always been committed to maintaining global security and regional stability and has consistently opposed the use of civilian drones for military purposes," said a Ministry of Commerce spokesperson. "China's moderate expansion of the scope of drone control this time is an important measure to demonstrate the responsibility of a responsible major country, implement global security initiatives, and maintain world peace."
DJI tried to show peaceful intentions when it suspended activities in both Ukraine and Russia in April 2022. The drone maker said it did not want its products used for harm and that they were not designed for military applications.
But a report from media outlet Politico alleged DJI sent 12 shipments of drone parts to Russia – routed through the United Arab Emirates – in November and December 2022.
Ukraine's vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov has previously asserted that Russian forces had used DJI's drone detection platform Aeroscope to navigate missiles and murder Ukrainians.
And in August 2022, the Russian embassy boasted that DJI's Mavic quadcopter had become a symbol of modern warfare, leading DJI to issue a statement protesting that that's not what the products are for. ®