In late March, the Southern Theater Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) released new photographs of the naval variant of its WZ-7 Soaring Dragon drone, which military observers and experts instantly noted some similarities with the US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton.

Like the American Triton, this Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is capable of High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) operations, developed to supplement PLA Navy’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

China’s Soaring Dragon

Built by the Guizhou Aircraft Industry Corporation, the earliest WZ-7 model debuted at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow. However, its maiden flight only occurred in the 2010s, with the drone’s radar cross-section trial taking place in September 2011. Nicknamed the “Soaring Dragon,” the drone entered production between 2015 and 2016 before news of its redesign made headlines in 2020.

The PLA officially unveiled the WZ-7 unmanned drone at the Zhuhai Airshow 2021 and flaunted it again in 2022. Meanwhile, the development of the naval variant of the UAV emerged weeks after the Chinese reconnaissance drone was spotted passing through the Miyako Strait earlier this year.

The strait is the waterway gap between the islands of Miyako and Okinawa, which holds geopolitical significance to the surrounding countries as it connects the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With this, PLA often conducts military exercises and other operations around the region, with which Japan has issues as Beijing frequently overlaps Tokyo’s claimed territory.

In several instances, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force had to deploy fighter jets over the strait to intercept the surveilling Chinese drones. But in recent years, particularly in 2022, PLA appeared to have stepped up its military activities near the Miyako Strait, a concern Japan has closely monitored since.