(MintPress) – China is building the world’s largest fleet of unmanned drones, capable of patrolling large swaths of the Pacific Ocean, according to a recent report published by Project 2049 this week. Experts believe that the move is part of a long-term strategy to counter U.S. military hegemony in East Asia.
Project 2049, a foreign policy think tank, warned of the growing Chinese military influence in the March 11 report.
Project 2049, a “non-partisan think tank” cautioned that in the unlikely event of a war with the United States., Chinese drones could be used to jam communications and radar, guide missile strikes on U.S. carriers and fire missiles at U.S. Navy ships.
“The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now fields one of the world’s most expansive UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] fleets,” said Ian Easton and L.C. Russell Hsiao, researchers at the Project 2049 Institute and authors of the report.
The report was released just days before the inauguration of China’s new President, Xi Jinping, who was sworn into office Thursday. Xi will lead China’s 1.3 billion citizens for the next 10 years and is expected to follow many of the policies pursued by his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
The U.S. military still operates the largest drone fleet, with at least 679 drones in operation as of 2012, according to data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies published in the Guardian. The United States. uses drones in combat, targeting suspected militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Congress has mandated that U.S. airspace be opened to drones by September 2015, allowing state and local law enforcement to use the unmanned vehicles for surveillance purposes.
The Project 2049 Institute report estimates that China had 280 military drones as of mid-2011, a number that experts believe will increase considerably in the coming years.
The increase in Chinese drone development could be in response to renewed U.S. interest in East Asia after the end of the Iraq war in 2011. The Obama administration has elevated the importance of the U.S. presence in East Asia, promoting free trade pacts principally through the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement currently being negotiated among the United States and 11 other countries.
China also views U.S. military presence in East Asia with hostility. Washington has roughly 56,000 troops permanently stationed in Japan and 20,000 in South Korea. Both countries share maritime borders with China.
Researchers Easton and Hsiao predict that China’s drone expansion could be used to monitor the actions of neighboring Japan as conflicts over a disputed Senkaku island chain continue to sour relations between the two countries. Beijing announced Tuesday that it will send a team of surveyors to study and map the islands amid the ongoing territorial disputes with Tokyo.