China’s Next Big ‘Weapon’: Remote-Controlled ‘Ghost Ships’


Beijing: It’s no secret that China is seeking to establish its hegemony in the seas, more so in the Indian Ocean. China’s growing naval might, meanwhile, has been well acknowledged. In fact, recent reports have suggested that the country, which has already built two aircraft carriers, has started work on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that can remain at sea for long durations. This aircraft carrier, if and when built, would mean a major upgrade for China’s increasingly formidable Navy.

While these are all conventional plans on the expected lines, it is the reference made in a report in Forbes that has brought the Chinese Navy into the spotlight. The Forbes report says, basing its conclusion on local media reports and views of analysts, that China might be in the process of building remote-controlled ‘ghost ships’ that would sail sans captains. The eventual aim would be to use these ships to transport containers around the world as well as work for the Chinese Navy.

Forbes says quoting a report in the World Maritime News that China is in the process of ‘grooming an autonomous fleet’, which it describes as giant drones of the sea. Beijing has already started work on a massive ‘test field’ for such autonomous ships off the South China Sea coast of Guangdong province, the report adds.

The Wanshan Marine Test Field, 771.6 square kilometres in size, will become the world’s largest field. According to Forbes, Chinese news website had reported in February that the field will be used to test technology that allows unmanned ships to steer and avoid obstacles. State-run China Daily online further said the learnings from the test site will help formulate standards for the maritime industry.

While autonomous ships would help save money for the maritime freight industry, they will have far greater ramifications for the Navy.

While China has not said that the autonomous ship technology, which can be quickly put to use in multiple fields, would be passed on from the marine test site to the People’s Liberation Army’s naval unit, but experts are sceptical about the scenario not becoming a reality.

Forbes quoted Yun Sun, the East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in the United States, as saying, “It is suspected that China will use these vessels to patrol the maritime areas under and beyond its control.”

It may be noted here that China will not be the first to build autonomous ships. In fact, the world’s first such ship is slated to set sail in Norway this year to make deliveries between towns along the country’s rugged coasts, the report in Forbes said.