China starts work on world’s biggest test site for drone ships at gateway to South China Sea

Islands in the Pearl River Delta to house range of equipment to put unmanned civilian and military vessels through their paces

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 February, 2018, 9:46pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 8:09am

China has started building the world’s biggest test site for unmanned vessels at one of the country’s gateways to the South China Sea.

The facility is being built in the waters around Zhuhai, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, and will cover 21.6 square kilometres (8.34 square miles) in its first phase, according to Dayoo.com, a Guangzhou Daily news site.

When completed, the Wanshan Marine Test Field would cover 771.6 sq km and be the biggest of its kind in the world, the report said. 

Unmanned vessels can be used in both peacetime and war, for surveillance and to tackle dangerous situations without putting personnel at risk.

The report did not say when the site would be up and running but said it would comprise a telecommunications network, navigation radars and automatic mooring systems on islands in the Pearl River Delta.

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Zhuhai faces the South China Sea, over 90 per cent of which China claims sovereignty. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims to the resource-rich waters.

The announcement about the test site came just days after Chinese military mouthpiece the PLA Daily confirmed that China sent an unmanned surface vehicle on its first outing last month.

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The 6.8-metre vessel patrolled the Songmushan Reservoir in Dongguan, another coastal city in the Pearl River Delta.

Military observers said the test site for the unmanned vessels was part of China’s overall plans to develop autonomous systems for both civilian and military applications.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the project was “in line with the overall aims of promoting scientific and technological innovation that benefits the country militarily and economically”. 

“While the South China Sea is part of the picture, this new test range isn’t just designed for this dispute. With this test range China can trial a whole range of unmanned vessels, both for its own use but also in no small part for export,” Koh said.

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Beijing-based military specialist Zhou Chenming said the move dovetailed with China’s push to use technology to safeguard China’s maritime interests.

China is researching various unmanned technologies, including aircraft and underwater drones for civilian and military purposes, to boost its presence in the contested waters. 

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China has also used some of the world’s biggest and most advanced dredging vessels to create and expand artificial islands in the South China Sea.