On October 5, the US State Department issued the Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Fifty-one countries signed the joint declaration, including Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. Notably absent on the list were the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and France, two of the largest manufacturers of UAVs on the global market. Although not invited as a signatory, Taiwan, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), officially issued a release (No. 220) on October 6 affirming the government’s adherence to the principles outlined in the joint declaration.
On the same day, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)—the United States’ de facto embassy in Taiwan—issued a reciprocal statement applauding Taipei’s unilateral move to adhere to the joint declaration. The AIT statement underscored that “Taiwan’s support demonstrates its important role as a responsible actor on export control and non-proliferation matters of global concern. As a central hub for shipments and transshipments in the Asia Pacific region, Taiwan’s efforts on export controls are a critical bulwark of the global non-proliferation architecture.”
Like the voluntary Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)—which limits the spread of ballistic missiles and other delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks—Taiwan is not a formal adherent because it is not permitted to join for political reasons, but nevertheless complies by developing export control systems that encompass the rules within the voluntary agreement. In no small part, Taipei’s unilateral adherences to such rules are attempts to demonstrate its commitment to international standards and a rules-based order—although it may not be in its own economic interest to do so.
The global market and Taiwan’s industry for UAVs are growing rapidly. According to some industry estimates cited in a recent Forbes article, global sales of UAVs are expected to top $82 billion over the next decade, and military UAV spending will make up 72 percent of the world market. Currently, “Taiwan makes up less than 10 percent of the world UAV market,” but one estimate wagers that “[f]rom this year  through 2025, Taiwan’s UAV market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 10 percent to $500 million.” With such projected growth in the global market on the horizon, there may be concerns within the industry that compliance with the declaration “could slow approval of UAV exports [from Taiwan].” While such concerns are understandable, the impact on Taiwan’s capacity to export its UAVs is marginal, because the overall restrictions would likely affect military “drones that are capable of flying a distance of 300 kilometers and carrying a payload of 500 kilograms”—which is a MTCR consideration—and prescribe that exports are conducted responsibly and under appropriate transparency measures.
Taiwan’s military has a fleet of UAVs that reportedly includes small-sized “Cardinal” (紅雀) hand-launched micro UAVs, medium-sized “Sharp Kite” (銳鳶) military surveillance UAVs, and a larger “Tengyun” (騰雲) MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) UAVs currently still in the testing phase, which analysts have compared to the US MQ-9 Reaper. Taiwan is also reported to have developed an Anti-UAV Defense System (AUDS), which is designed to intercept small drones.
Pertinently, Taiwan’s unilateral statement of adherence to global export control standards stands in stark contrast to the PRC’s muted response and contrary actions. Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) rapid development of UAVs has accelerated at a rapid rate over the last decade. As far back as 2011, the PLA was already known to field one of the world’s most expansive UAV fleets, at over 280 UAVs in service as of mid-2011. According to another report, “Washington has strict limits on which countries can buy US-made armed drones. China is willing to sell them to anyone with cash to spend.” Countries known to have purchased variants of the PLA’s “Rainbow” (彩虹) UAVs include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Nigeria, Iraq, and Pakistan. Moreover, North Korea acquired its first UAV from China in the late 1980s.
Taiwan’s role in the regional as well as global non-proliferation architecture extends well beyond military UAVs and the MTCR. The government’s unilateral statement of adherence to the joint declaration serves as a further example of Taipei’s commitment to an international rules-based order despite not being able to serve as a formal signatory to these agreements.
The main point: Taipei’s unilateral statements of adherence to the joint declaration on export controls of UAVs and other international voluntary agreements underscore its commitment to international standards and a rules-based order.