Bill aims to prevent Chinese tech from being used in ways that critics argue undermine US national security
By: Demetri Sevastopulo, November 1
The House of Representatives China committee will introduce a bill on Wednesday that would ban the US government from buying Chinese drones, in a bid to bolster a Senate push after past efforts were derailed by lobbying.
Mike Gallagher, the Republican head of the committee, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, the top Democrat, will introduce the American Security Drone Act on Wednesday, the Financial Times has learnt.
The measure is the latest bipartisan effort by lawmakers on Capitol Hill to prevent Chinese technology from being used in ways that critics argue undermine US national security.
The bill mirrors legislation in the Senate introduced by Mark Warner, the Democratic head of the intelligence committee, and Republican senator Rick Scott. The Senate included the measure in its version of the defence bill, which must be reconciled with the House version that does not include any language to ban the purchase of Chinese drones.
While the bill does not name specific companies, it would take aim at DJI, a Chinese group that is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial drones. The Shenzhen-based group’s products are used by everyone from photographers to local police agencies across America. It would also affect Chinese group Autel, which has 7.8 per cent of the US commercial drone market after DJI, which has a dominant 58 per cent share, according to David Benowitz at Drone Analyst.
The House China committee hopes its bill will draw more attention to the issue, making it harder for lawmakers to oppose the broader effort.
“The Chinese Communist party consistently weaponises its near monopoly on the drone market against the good guys; restricting drone exports to Ukraine while Hamas uses them to perpetrate brutal terrorist attacks,” Gallagher told the FT.
“This bill would prohibit the federal government from using American taxpayer dollars to purchase this equipment from countries like China, supporting the PRC’s malign behaviour and posing a serious national security threat to the US and our allies. It is imperative that Congress pass this bipartisan bill to protect US interests and our national security supply chain.”
The Senate has in previous years included language on Chinese drones in the annual must-pass defence bill, but those efforts have failed to make it into the final legislation passed by Congress.
DJI said it opposed legislation that “limits market choice or bans technology based on country of origin”. Adam Welsh, DJI’s head of global policy, said limiting access to its drones would impose costs in terms of safety and would also affect small companies that use its drones and related software.
Welsh rejected suggestions that DJI’s products posed a security risk, saying they had been repeatedly tested by government agencies. “DJI products can be flown without even connecting to the internet — making them as secure as using an air-gapped computer,” he said.
DJI’s efforts to oppose the legislation have in the past been helped by US police agencies that have argued there are no comparable cost-effective drones available domestically.
The bill, which was cosigned by Virginia Republican Rob Wittman and Connecticut Democrat Joe Courtney, would also bar local and state governments from purchasing Chinese drones with federal grants.
Michael Robbins, head of advocacy for the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International, said lawmakers were more aware of the security threat from Chinese drones, particularly after they appeared on the battlefield in Ukraine. He said the technological gap between DJI drones and the US had narrowed but American companies were at a disadvantage because their Chinese rivals were subsidised by Beijing.
“It was true at one time that DJI had a significant technological advantage, and they pushed that narrative to their own benefit,” said Robbins. “But it is a very convenient narrative that is no longer true.”
Eric Sayers, an Asia security expert, said it was “encouraging” that there might be congressional action this year.
“Unfortunately, it has taken many long years to get to this point, and the final bill will probably have a range of waivers for federal agencies to continue to use People’s Republic of China drones,” said Sayers, managing director at the consultancy Beacon Global Strategies.
“The lesson here is we must identify and prevent critical dependencies on the PRC before they emerge, burrow in our economy, and become politically and financially expensive to reverse.”