Chinese drone giant bases sales on Russia and Ukraine

In the latest move in China’s delicate balancing act over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese drone maker DJI has suspended operations in the two warring countries. The Shenzhen-based company is the world’s largest drone manufacturer.

The move makes DJI the first major Chinese company to cease operations in both countries amid a conflict the West has condemned and sanctioned, but China has so far stayed away despite its alliance with Moscow.

In an April 26 statement, DJI said it would suspend all business operations in Russia and Ukraine, pending an internal assessment of compliance requirements in various regions.

In a separate statement, DJI said it does not sell products to customers who clearly plan to use them for military purposes or help modify them for military purposes, and it will never accept the use of its products to cause harm.

Additionally, in a separate statement, DJI Europe spokesperson Barbara Stelzner said the company’s position was “not to make a statement about one country, but to make a statement about our principles.” . She also said DJI abhors the use of its drones to cause harm and is suspending sales to Russia and Ukraine to ensure no one uses its drones in combat.

“Such use is against our principles and has potential implications for legal compliance. Our compliance review covers a large number of aspects. One of them is applicable export control laws in various jurisdictions,” Stelzner added.

DJI’s main products are small drones typically used for filming and aerial photography. However, the company’s drones are widely used by Russia and Ukraine for reconnaissance, artillery spotting, snipers and ambushes.

Last month, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov posted photos of DJI Mavic 3 drones in what appears to be the back of a pickup truck. He also said Ukraine purchased 2,372 quadcopters and 11 military unmanned aerial vehicles for $6.8 million.

Aerorozvidka, a civil society organization supporting the Ukrainian military, reportedly used consumer quadcopters to ferret out Russian forces at night before bombarding them with anti-tank grenades from locally-made R18 octocopters or calling in artillery fire with Starlink satellite communications.

Russian soldiers prepare to launch an Orlan-10 UAV from a catapult. Image: Twitter

Similarly, Russian forces used drones to spot and knock out Ukrainian artillery and air defense systems. A detailed study of captured Russian Orlan-10 drones revealed American electronic communications and navigation alongside other Chinese-made parts.

In addition, Ukraine accused DJI of tampering with its AeroScope drone detection system which provides authorized users with the location, speed, altitude and direction of each DJI drone within radio range (48 kilometers), allowing Russian drones to evade Ukrainian detection.

Drones are an excellent example of dual-use technology intended for civilian applications but potentially used for warfare. The ambiguity offered by such technology is a useful feature for China to balance its interests vis-à-vis Russia, Europe and the United States in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

The threat of US and Western sanctions against DJI may have been a factor in the company’s decision to suspend operations in Russia and Ukraine. Such sanctions could lead to the loss of more profitable US and European markets for Chinese drones.

However, China has been reluctant to criticize Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and many Chinese companies in Russia have shifted to low-key operations or downplayed the scale of their operations rather than suspending operations altogether.

Russia remains China’s main strategic partner in a bid to counterbalance the United States. A Russia weakened by military setbacks in Ukraine, isolated by the international economy and in economic decline is less useful for China as a distraction for the United States in far-Pacific Europe. But it’s unclear how much China will help Russia in its beleaguered military situation in Ukraine.

Helping Russia through overt shipments of military equipment will most likely incur sanctions and huge reputational costs for China. However, the ambiguous nature of dual-use equipment such as drones, semiconductors and communications equipment has so far allowed China to help Russia without incurring US and Western sanctions.

Sanctions and international isolation may also push Russia to increase its dependence on China, raising fears that the former could be reduced to a junior partner in their strategic relationship.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have developed close ties, but China is reluctant to support Russia as it wages war on Ukraine. Photo: AFP/Getty

Such a situation could compel Russia to accelerate its national projects of critical technologies, but given its economic situation, it may not be able to pursue its objectives and give China new leverage over Russia, in particular by terms of immense natural resources and military industries of the latter. .

Ultimately, China sees itself as an independent actor in the war in Ukraine. Whether it’s maintaining a counterweight to the United States in Europe, maintaining access to profitable Western markets, or cementing its increasingly important position in its strategic partnership with Russia, we can expect that China maintains a tenuous and selective neutrality guided by its own interests. .

DJI’s decision to stop selling drones to both fighters underscores this increasingly apparent point.

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