Is China thinking of using artificial intelligence (AI) to further its militarisation and island building activities in the South China Sea? This is what a report by the South China Morning Post said while highlighting that China is mulling to bolster its maritime claims in the hotly contested South China Sea.
The Hong Kong-based news outlet cited a report by China’s peer reviewed journal, Operations Research and Management Science which, in an article published on February 14, said the Tianjin-based Civil Aviation University of China’s Transportation Science and Engineering College ran an AI simulation of the construction and operation of a logistics network in the South China Sea. The South China Morning Post said this would help Beijing in strengthening its sovereignty in the Western Pacific’s disputed sea by promoting economic development and infrastructure.
The logistics network to be developed in the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea, will involve construction of 80 features ranging from helipads and harbours for cargo ships to warehouses. They will be connected by regular flights between China and 20 island airports. China will invest 20 billion yuan (US $2.9 billion) in the development of these logistics networks, the Hong Kong-based English language daily said. Since operationalisation of the logistics network and its coordination with various modes of transport is complex and as such, to make it smooth and unencumbered, engineers at the Transportation Science and Engineering College simulated its implementation through AI. This was done to boost China’s efforts to send personnel and materials to any isle within six hours after a typhoon or other unexpected events, the journal Operations Research and Management Science said in its report.
“To meet the production and living needs of the residents of the South China Sea islands, the Chinese government has expanded or built a number of docs and airports in the Xisha (Paracel) Islands and Nansha (Spratly) Islands in the South China sea in recent years,” the journal said. The report has come at the time when China is accused by the international community of militarisation of several islands it built in the highly contested South China Sea. These man-made islands are armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets, US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John C Aquilino was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. It is feared that any military and civilian aircraft flying over the disputed South China Sea could easily come within range of the Chinese missile system stationed at these man-made islands of the contested waterway, a part of the Pacific Ocean where, as per Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (which is part of the US’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies) has 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands and seven in the Spratly Islands.
In his article in January 2020 for War on the Rocks, a noted platform for analysis, commentary, and debate on foreign policy and national security issues, Gregory Poling said, “China’s primary strategy in the South China Sea is not to fight a war with the US, but to use grey zone paramilitary pressure to force Southeast Asian states into abandoning their maritime claims by using its island bases, militia ships and large fleet of Coast Guard ships.” Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Brunei lay competing claims over the South China Sea which is estimated to have 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague gave its ruling on the claim brought against China by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The international tribunal in its judgment said China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea. Despite being signatory to the UNCLOS treaty, which established the arbitral tribunal in the Hague, China refuses to accept the court’s ruling.
Under its U-shaped ‘nine-dash line,’ China makes sovereign claim over 90% of the South China Sea. This dotted line was adopted from Chinese maps in the 1940s, and represents China’s claim over the sea waters and all the land features of the South China Sea through which one third of the total global trade passes annually. In August 2021, China unveiled a new set of maritime regulations which require ships carrying certain types of cargo to provide detailed information to the Chinese officials while passing through “Chinese territorial waters” of the South China Sea. Earlier in January 2021, Beijing passed a new Coast Guard Law and in April, it unveiled a revised Maritime Traffic Safety Law. The East Asian country did to firm up its claim over the South China Sea. Since these Chinese laws are in contravention of the UNCLOS that gives military or civilian ships the right of passage through the territorial waters of another state, it has furthered tension between China, on the one side and the US and its allies and ASEAN countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei on the other hand.
For the US and its allies, the South China Sea represents waterways to carry out trade with the world and as such, would do their utmost to check China from aggressively pushing its agenda in the Sea. In the recent past, several political and strategic initiatives like Quad and AUCKUS (a trilateral security pact between the US, the UK and Australia) have been launched by the US and its allies to stop China from carrying out its militaristic designs in the area. However, Beijing seems to be in no mood to yield to any pressure and surrender its claims over the South China Sea. China’s endeavour to use AI and other advanced technologies for island building activities in the Sea should be seen in this context.