In 2018, in the tiny northern Italian hamlet of Pordenone, a company known as Alpi Aviation SRL—a maker of light aircraft and mini-drones used by the Italian military in Afghanistan—was taken over by a new Hong Kong company named Mars Information Technology. That’s when the story, reported recently by the Wall Street Journal, gets interesting. Mars, Italian investigators have concluded, was a front company for two Chinese state and local government-owned firms, China Railway Rolling Stock Corp., or CRRC, and “an investment group controlled by the municipal government of Wuxi, a city near Shanghai.” What does a railway stock company and a local investment group want with an Italian drone maker?
The same thing the Chinese government wants all over Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and, most importantly perhaps, the United States: artificial intelligence technology, military technology and advanced avionics, surveillance equipment, energy supplies, and more. You name it, Beijing wants it, wants to own it, and much of the time, doesn’t want you to be sure exactly who is using it and what for.
Back to little Alpi. Italian authorities believe the Chinese buyers substantially overpaid for their majority stake in the firm. And a year after its first investment, the now Chinese-owned Alpi transferred a military drone to the PRC, lying on the shipping manifest about both the product (which was not a “radio-controlled airplane model”) and its destination (apparently not an import fair in Shanghai).
By itself, this drone, capable as it may be, is not going to shift the global balance of power. But multiply the Alpi story thousands of times over, and an already well-known but largely unmanaged problem becomes slightly more visible. And for the curious—why can’t China build its own damn drones? Well, it can. But communism does not drive innovation the way free societies do; and why do the work if you can steal or buy it from someone else.