According to Forbes, China is working on creating remote-controlled “ghosts ships” that would send containers around the world and even work for the Chinese navy.
According to a World Maritime Report, China began building a huge “test field” for “autonomous ships” off the South China Sea coast of the Guangdong province. The test field in question, which is 771.6 square-kilometers, is set to become the world’s largest field over the next three to five years and will become a testing ground for technology that allows a captainless ship to steer and avoid obstacles.
With this in mind, and as China’s growing reach in the Pacific region continues to irk the U.S. and its western allies, Australia’s decision to send a British warship into the South China Sea might start to make a lot more sense.
However, as Forbes explains, one of the intended benefits of China’s proposed activity is that autonomous ships could potentially save money spent on hiring captains and supporting the crew.
That being said, the element of this technological advancement that will continue to exacerbate tensions between western powers and China is the technology’s potential military application. Just days ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for deepened military-civilian integration. As China’s state-run Xinhua reported:
“Highlighting coordinated sci-tech innovation in key areas between the military and civilian sectors, Xi asked related parties to promote integrated reasoning and implementation on key sci-tech projects and race to occupy the strategic high ground in terms of sci-tech innovation.”
As the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) also previously explained:
“As a key pillar of Chinese military modernization, civil-military fusion is a more far-reaching and ambitious in scale than the U.S. equivalent, reflecting a large push to fuse the defense and commercial economies.”
Since Jinping took power, the CFR notes, “civil-military fusion has been part of nearly every major strategic initiative.”
According to Yun Sun, an East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in the U.S., there are fears that China will use the aforementioned captain-less vessels “to patrol the maritime areas under and beyond its control.”
That being said, while China’s advancements are rapid, the country is still playing catch up to Europe and the United States. Later this year, the world’s first captainless ship will set sail in Norway to undertake deliveries between towns along the country’s rugged coasts.