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Trump offers deadly US drones to more countries

Change of export policy aims to counter China in international market

The U.S.'s MQ-9 Reaper drone, dubbed the "Hunter-Killler," has until now been available to the U.K., France and Italy.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration has moved to ease restrictions on exports of American military drones and other defense equipment in a bid to counter China's arms sale diplomacy.

The new policy will allow direct sales of unmanned aerial systems by U.S. manufacturers to foreign governments. This should significantly expedite an approval process that often takes years when Washington bureaucracy is involved. Sales of the Reaper drone -- a remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicle dubbed the "Hunter-Killer" -- had been limited to the U.K., France and Italy, for example, but the administration wants to offer it to other countries.

The list of items subject to special scrutiny will also be shortened. The details of these changes and revisions to policies on conventional weapons exports will be hammered out within 60 days.

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, a China hawk, explicitly tied the new policies to competition from Beijing. "Strategic competitors like China are aggressively marketing to and making sales in international markets," he said Thursday.

Even American allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are reportedly buying cheaper equipment from China. Navarro pointed to a Chinese "knockoff" of an American drone exhibited at last year's Paris Air Show.

President Donald Trump touted American arms sales to Saudi Arabia during his recent meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, left.   © AP

The Trump administration has characterized the changes as a pivot from the policy of predecessor Barack Obama, whose administration was cautious about exporting advanced military gear.

When allies "order military equipment from us, we will get it taken care of, and they will get their equipment rapidly," President Donald Trump declared in a news conference Wednesday, before the new policy was announced.

The change fits with the president's "America first" line. An increase in arms exports should create jobs and boost domestic investment, fueling a virtuous cycle. The administration probably also hopes to shore up support for Trump's Republican Party -- which traditionally has deep ties to military contractors -- as it seeks to hold onto its congressional majorities in the midterm elections.

A senior U.S. official also argued that expanded exports of advanced weapons could reduce the number of American troops deployed abroad.

But a greater focus on expanding arms exports and defense industry profits raises the risk that weapons will be misused or fall into the wrong hands. The tough review process had aimed to keep advanced technology from being stolen or resold to terrorist groups.

In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, a lawmaker said strikes by Saudi Arabia using U.S.-supplied weapons have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Both Republican and Democratic senators recommended that the State Department periodically monitor Riyadh's response to the situation. Congress is also exploring measures to slow down indirect arms sales.

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