WASHINGTON • The Trump administration has moved ahead with surveillance drone sales to four US allies in the South China Sea region, as Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Washington will no longer "tiptoe" around Chinese behaviour in Asia.
The drones will afford greater intelligence-gathering capabilities, potentially curbing Chinese activity in the region.
Mr Shanahan did not directly name China when making accusations of actors destabilising the region in a speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last Saturday, but went on to say that the United States would not ignore Chinese behaviour.
The Pentagon had announced last Friday that it would sell 34 Boeing-made ScanEagle drones to the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam for a total of US$47 million (S$64 million).
China claims almost all of the South China Sea and has frequently lambasted the US and its allies over naval operations near Chinese-occupied islands. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims.
The Pentagon said the deals would include spare and repair parts, support equipment, tools, training and technical services, adding that work on the equipment was expected to be completed by March 2022.
As many as 12 unarmed drones and equipment will go to Malaysia for about US$19 million. Indonesia and the Philippines will each buy eight drones, while Vietnam will acquired six.
Last year, the Trump administration rolled out a long-awaited overhaul of US arms export policy aimed at expanding sales to allies, saying it would bolster the US defence industry and create jobs at home. That initiative eased rules for exporting some types of lethal and non-lethal US-made drones to potentially dozens more allies and partners.
There is no armed version of the ScanEagle, but Insitu, the division of Boeing that makes the drone, also makes the RQ-21A Blackjack, an optionally armed drone used by the US Navy and Marine Corps.