BEIJING -- China considered using a drone strike in a mountainous region of Southeast Asia to kill a Myanmar drug lord wanted in the murders of 13 Chinese sailors, but decided instead to capture him alive, according to an influential state-run newspaper.
The plan to use a drone, described to the Global Times newspaper by a senior public security official, highlights China's increasing advances in unmanned aerial warfare, a technology dominated by the United States and used widely by the Obama administration for the targeted killing of terrorists.
Liu Yuejin, the director of the Ministry of Public Security's antidrug bureau, told the newspaper in an article published online on Tuesday that the plan called for using a drone carrying explosives to bomb the outlaw's hide-out in the opium-growing area of Myanmar, in the Golden Triangle at the intersection of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
China's law enforcement officials were under pressure from an outraged public to take action after 13 Chinese sailors on two cargo ships laden with narcotics were killed in October 2011 on the Mekong River. Photos of the dead sailors, their bodies gagged and blindfolded and some with head wounds suggesting execution-style killings, circulated on China's Internet.
It was one of the most brutal assaults on Chinese citizens abroad in recent years. Naw Kham, a member of Myanmar's ethnic Shan minority and a major drug trafficker, was suspected in the murders.
A manhunt by the Chinese police in the jungles of the Golden Triangle produced no results, and security officials turned to a drone strike as a possible solution.
Dennis M. Gormley, an expert on unmanned aircraft at the University of Pittsburgh, said of the reported Chinese deliberations, "Separating fact from fiction here is difficult." But he added, "Given the gruesome nature of the 2011 killings and the Chinese public's outcry for action, it's not at all surprising to imagine China employing an armed drone over Myanmar's territory."
Mr. Gormley said the decision not to carry out a drone strike might reflect a lack of confidence in untested Chinese craft, control systems or drone pilots. "I think China's still not ready for prime time using armed drones, but they surely will be with a few more years of determined practice," he said. "And they surely will have America's armed drone practice as a convenient cover for legitimating their own practice."
China's global navigation system, Beidou, would have been used to guide the drones to the target, Mr. Liu said. China's goal is for the Beidou system to compete with the United States' Global Positioning System, Russia's Glonass and the European Union's Galileo, Chinese experts say.
Mr. Liu's comments on the use of the Beidou system with the drones reflects the rapid advancement in that navigation system from its humble beginnings more than a decade ago.
The experimental navigation system was started in 2000 and has since expanded to 16 navigation satellites over Asia and the Pacific Ocean, according to an article in Wednesday's China Daily, an English-language state-run newspaper. The Chinese military, particularly the navy, is now conducting patrols and training exercises using Beidou, the paper said.
As an example, China Daily quoted the information chief at the headquarters of the North Sea Fleet, Lei Xiwei, as saying a fleet with the missile destroyer Qingdao, along with the missile frigates Yantai and Yancheng, entered the South China Sea on Feb. 1 using the Beidou navigation system to provide positioning, security and protection for the fleet.
As China has been vastly improving its navigation system, it is also making fast progress with drones, and many manufacturers for the military have research centers devoted to unmanned aerial vehicles, according to a report last year by the Defense Science Board of the Pentagon.
Two Chinese drones, apparently modeled on the American Reaper and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, were unveiled at the Zhuhai air show in November. A larger drone Western experts say is akin to the American RQ-4 Global Hawk is also known to be in the Chinese arsenal.
One of the Chinese drones, the CH-4, had a range of about 2,200 miles and was ideal for surveillance missions over islands in the East China Sea that are the subject of a dispute between China and Japan, an official with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said at the Zhuhai air show.
China has acknowledged a pilot program that uses drones as part of its stepped-up surveillance of its coastal areas, as well as in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
The State Oceanic Administration has said that by 2015, it plans to use drones along China's coastline on a permanent basis and will establish monitoring bases in provinces along the coastline for drones.
As for Naw Kham, the fugitive, he was captured by Laotian authorities at the Mekong River port of Mong Mo after a six-month hunt in the jungles of the Golden Triangle by the combined police forces of China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. After his extradition to China, Naw Kham received a death sentence from a Chinese court in Yunnan Province and awaits execution.
"We didn't use China's military, and we didn't harm a single foreign citizen," Mr. Liu bragged after the arrest in April 2012.
Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington. Bree Feng contributed research from Beijing.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.