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“But even before these investments are manifested in wider deployments, Japan will be relying on UAVs for wider and better surveillance, particularly around its southwest island chain, while China will be using them to variably challenge Japanese administrative control and, indirectly, pressure the United States to restrain its ally,” said Mr. Cronin. “This vital new technology is improving situational awareness. But, paradoxically, if used more offensively the same technology may also accelerate a maritime crisis in the East or even South China Sea.”

U.S. precedents

Others say the U.S. and its closest allies have set a precedent with clandestine drone strikes in foreign lands. Although British forces have carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Israel has used drone-fired missiles to kill suspected terrorists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, as well as Islamic militants in Gaza, the most widespread use has been directed by the U.S. military and CIA.

In addition to strikes in Libya and Somalia, the U.S. has carried out more than 375 strikes in Pakistan and as many as 65 in Yemen over the past nine years, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The concern, said the Brookings Institution’s Mr. Singer, is that adversaries will point to U.S. behavior as an excuse for carrying out cross-border targeting of “high-value” individuals.

“That’s where you have the problem,” he said. “Turkey carries out a strike in northern Iraq and then cites U.S. precedent in Pakistan to justify it. Or Iran carries out a drone strike inside Syria that the Syrian government says it’s fine with because it’s a lawless area where what they call ‘terrorists’ are hanging out, and then they throw the precedent back at the U.S.

“That would make it sticky for us,” said Mr. Singer. “That’s not the broader norm we want out there.”