The Soft, Weak Chinese Cite Concerns for International Law and Due Process

Beijing considers but rejects drone-killing an elusive foreign killer hiding in the jungle claiming sovereignty issues and the need for a trial

A heinous act of wanton slaughter, committed on 5 October 2011, dominated Chinese news for months. Two Chinese cargo ships were found adrift on the Mekong River, a major trade route for China, near the Thai-Burmese border, with 13 Chinese crew members brutally killed, summarily stabbed or shot with their hands bound behind their backs and their mutilated bodies dumped in the water. The Chinese government suspended passenger and cargo traffic on the river, while the Chinese public was furious at the government's failure to protect against violence on the Mekong and "increasingly critical of government agencies not perceived as taking a strong enough stand to defend the country".

The suspected mastermind of the massacre was quickly named by the Chinese: Naw Kham, the Burmese leader of the largest drug trafficking gang in the so-called Golden Triangle, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand converge. A major manhunt for Naw Kham ensued under the direction of Liu Yuejin, head of China's antinarcotics bureau in its Ministry of Public Security. But it proved exceedingly difficult to find him because he was hiding in the vast mountainous jungles of Laos, which he knew well and which had a network of loyalists to protect him that included, according the experts in the region, operatives within the Burmese and Thai armies and the Laotian security forces.

Moreover, the Chinese were limited by both political constraints and technological capabilities in what they could do in that region. The Global Times noted that "some analysts had even said the hunt for Naw Kham could be as difficult as the hunt for Bin Laden," while Chinese newspapers quoted others as saying that "the overseas manhunt was more difficult than that of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, in that the only preliminary clue [about Naw Kham] was a suspect portrait taken 20 years ago." On at least three occasions when the Chinese were convinced they had located him, they were unable to secure the cooperation of government and local police officials quickly enough or overcome the protection of local villagers, who engaged in firefights with police forces trying to apprehend him. That enabled Naw Kham to disappear across the border into the jungle of Myanmar.

As a result of these obstacles, the Global Times reported back in February, China seriously considered using a drone strike in Myanmar to kill him: "an unmanned aircraft to carry 20 kilograms of TNT to bomb the area". That option was rejected because, the report said, the Chinese were intent on capturing him alive and trying him in court. This morning, the New York Times provides more details on this decision-making process:

"The Chinese were so intent on catching up with Mr. Naw Kham that security forces considered using a drone to kill him.

"The drone idea was eventually abandoned even as Mr. Naw Kham outfoxed his pursuers in Myanmar's mountainous jungles, said Mr. Liu, a precise man with a photograph of himself at a Mao heritage site on his office wall.

"The Chinese news media reported that Mr. Liu's superiors had ordered that Mr. Naw Kham be captured alive. Mr. Liu, whose antinarcotics bureau runs a fleet of unarmed drones for surveillance in China's border areas, insisted that the idea was shelved because of legal restraints.

"'China using unmanned aircraft would have met with problems,' he said. 'My initial reaction was that this was not realistic because this relates to international and sovereignty issues."

What kind of weak, soft, overly legalistic government worries about trivial concerns like international law and "sovereignty issues" when it comes to drone-killing heinous murderers for whom capture is difficult? Why not just shoot Hellfire missiles wherever you think he might be hiding in weaker countries and kill him and anyone who happens to be near him? Or if you are able to find him, at least just riddle his skull with bullets, dump his corpse into the ocean, and then chant nationalistic slogans in the street and at your political conventions. Who would ever want to give a trial to such a heinous and savage foreign killer of your citizens, particularly if it means risking the lives of your soldiers to apprehend him?

What China did instead was conduct what the NYT this morning calls a "methodical and unyielding" law enforcement investigation over the course of six months. Using informants and following up on leads, they learned of Naw Kham's plans to escape to Laos. In April of last year, the Laotian police, acting in concert with the Chinese, apprehended him as he attempted to flee. He was quickly flown back to China and put on trial, which was nationally televised. In September, he pleaded guilty to the killings and was sentenced to death; after he withdrew his plea, his final appeal was rejected in December; and he was executed by lethal injection last month.

In contrast to the strong and just US - which not only boldly drone-kills whomever and wherever it wants without regard to irritating trivialities like sovereignty but even tried (unsuccessfully) to pressure the Afghan government to execute its accused "drug lords" with no trials - the weak and soft Chinese are actually celebrating their own impotence. As the New York Times put it in February: "'We didn't use China's military, and we didn't harm a single foreign citizen,' Mr. Liu bragged after the arrest in April 2012." Note the word "brag": the Times has to infuse something negative into the success of the Chinese in avoiding killing foreign civilians and relying on law enforcement processes rather than military strikes to apprehend an elusive killer.

Indeed, in reporting on this episode, the New York Times twice tried to depict it as proof of the growing Chinese menace. In February, it said that the mere possibility that China would use a drone strike "highlights China's increasing advances in unmanned aerial warfare, a technology dominated by the United States and used widely by the Obama administration for the targeted killing of terrorists" (by "terrorists", the Times means: people accused of being terrorists by the US government with no due process). Then this morning, the Times claims that China's apprehension of Naw Kham in cooperation with other governments shows, as the headline put it, that "Beijing Flaunts Cross-Border Clout in Search for Drug Lord" and that "the capture shows how China's law enforcement tentacles reach far beyond its borders into a region now drawn by investment and trade into China's orbit, and where the United States' influence is being challenged."

So even when China refuses to use weapons the US routinely uses, by citing precepts of international law, respect for the sovereignty of neighboring countries and at least the pretense of due process, this shows that China is a growing threat to US interests in the region. At some point, either China or Russia or someone else is going to start drone-killing people in other countries, and the only thing certain to happen is that US political and media circles will erupt with condemnation without the slightest sense of irony or shame (provided that it's done by a government that is not a US client). The fact that China's restraint is depicted in US media circles as evidence of the growing threat it poses highlights the mindset that drives this.

There are, of course, ample reasons to treat Chinese claims with great suspicion. One expert quoted in the Times speculated that China's restraint may have been due to its lack of confidence in its drone technology (that sounds unconvincing: if they wanted to just kill him and didn't trust their drones, they could have used a fighter jet). Either way, he noted that if they don't already have full drone-killing capability they will shortly. When that happens, he said, "they surely will have America's armed drone practice as a convenient cover for legitimating their own practice". But at least for now, America stands alone as the only country to embrace this model.

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