Artificial Intelligence in the South China Sea

Artificial Intelligence in the South China Sea

The South China Sea is host to a number of countries vying for control in the area. Attempting to develop new tactics and technologies to swing the balance in its favor, China may have found its key advantage – artificial intelligence (AI).

Described as an “enabling” technology, in the same way as the combustion engine or electricity, applications range from deep-sea exploration and international investment, to cybersecurity and combat operations.

Deep-Sea Operations

Chinese scientists are currently developing plans for the first-ever AI-run colony on Earth. Designed for unmanned submarine science and defense operations, the project started at the Chinese Academy of Sciences following a visit from President Xi Jinping in April to the deep-sea research institute in Sanya, Hainan province.

Costing taxpayers roughly $160 million, a location under review is the Manila Trench, the only place in the South China Sea with a depth exceeding 5,000 meters. Located near the Scarborough Shoal, where China and the Philippines nearly sparked conflict two years ago, the base provides China with a humanitarian pretext for placing strategically useful assets in the region. Resting along the meeting point between the Eurasian and Pacific continental plates, the trench is a prime target for recording seismic activity. In one of the largest quake zones in the world, China can likely push their agenda under the guise of a “win-win” scenario. The ability to monitor potential earthquakes and tsunamis would be to the benefit of emergency planners in each country. However, China’s ability to launch antagonistic operations and track foreign vessels – would not.

Maritime Drones

Following the president’s April visit, in July the Chinese Academy of Sciences began pursuing plans for a fleet of unmanned autonomous underwater submarines, or “Extra Large Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (XLUUVs).” With an available mission profile from whale tracking to anti-carrier operations, this will all happen thanks to artificial intelligence. Able to traverse thousands of nautical miles, depending on the size of the fleet China could attain near ubiquity in the region.

Roving the ocean floor, they are going to provide a wide spectrum of capabilities ranging from electronic to mine warfare, and varying offensive payload capacities – and geopolitical analysts should take note of serious security implications. As AI technology remains in its infancy, the possibility of a “rogue” submarine is not out of the question, unexpectedly firing on a naval ship or civilian tanker. This leads to additional concerns that China, provided with plausible deniability, could initiate a small-scale attack on foreign vessels claiming the incident occurred due to a “technological mishap.”

The developments in autonomous submarine drone systems are subsumed within China’s overarching “Underwater Great Wall.” The initiative involves a network of submarine detectors for national security in the South China Sea. The main strategic benefit provided by such a project, placing subsurface sensors throughout the region, would be to detect U.S. and Russian submarines – eliminating the current advantage these states have in that realm of naval competition.

Dual-Use Technology

According to the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, in charge of the project, an additional objective is to provide customers with “a package solution in terms of underwater environment monitoring and collection, real-time location tracing of surface and underwater targets, warning of seaquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters as well as marine scientific research”.

Things beneficial to all parties involved, an unspoken reality, however, is the decisive advantage this would provide the Chinese maritime forces. With real-time monitoring systems throughout the South China Sea, the tactical potential is nearly endless.

One key factor in predicting the precipitous rise of AI technology is ease of cross-over between private and military application. Should the algorithms developed in the civilian sector be easily adaptable for military usage, then the full force of China’s emerging AI start-up community may assist in developing security applications of AI technology. An example of this, drawing from the previous mention of autonomous submarines, would be an AI algorithm used to direct the subs as they search for resources and other useful scientific data. Directing themselves in conjunction with one another, the algorithm can easily find a further use in swarming techniques – allowing the drones to maneuvre in synchronisation, easily adapting to changes in the combat environment. Such algorithms already exist in the private sector, the military only needs to adapt them for full use in naval operations.

AI-Assisted Policymaking

An additional example of dual-purpose AI technology is China’s advancements within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A prototype underway is providing decision-makers with an AI-enabled diplomatic system, currently being used to lighten the load for policymakers undertaking China’s Belt and Road Initiative. With over 70 countries and roughly 65% of the world’s population involved, there are a lot of moving parts to consider when making decisions. With AI technology available to synthesize this data and provide recommendation, the ministry could enjoy a huge boon to efficiency and accuracy of judgement.

In addition to usefulness for foreign investment, the military has made use of the system for wargaming activities.

Liu Yu, an associate researcher at the Institute of Automation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, involved in the development of this AI wargame system for the People’s Liberation Army said that “human diplomats would have difficulty winning a strategic game against AI”.

Practitioners may doubt the utility behind these technologies, however, a brief look at the development of AI may reinforce Yu’s claims.

AI in Perspective

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue software defeated Garry Kasparov, a Russian chess grandmaster. Although not true AI technology, it synthesized thousands of moves every second – it was an early success of such endeavors. In 2016, Google’s AlphaGo software bested Lee Sedol, one of the top ranked Go players in the world. Just one year later, Google released AlphaGo Zero. While the original AlphaGo learned the game by analyzing AI and human player matches, AlphaGo Zero’s training consisted solely of playing itself. After only three days, it was able to defeat its predecessor, showcasing the learning power of artificial intelligence.

Vladimir Putin, famously proclaimed in 2017: “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world”.

It appears no State has taken this more seriously than the People’s Republic of China.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Risk Pulse

About Author

Jonathan Hall

Jonathan Hall is a security and political risk analyst with a focus on Eurasian geopolitics, military affairs, and emerging technologies. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Central European University and has experience living and working in Eastern Europe. He can be found on Twitter @_JonathanPHall