China's newly unveiled drone carrier is cementing concerns over Beijing's intentions as it pushes for military supremacy in the Pacific Ocean, analysts say.
Officially it is just a research vessel, but China's launch of the Zhu Hai Yun last month is a clear sign Beijing is rushing to deploy an autonomous swarm of unmanned aircraft.
The Zhu Hai Yun is capable of transporting an unspecified number of flying drones as well as surface and submarine craft, and operating autonomously thanks to artificial intelligence, according to state media.
The vessel also reportedly has military capability to "intercept and expel invasive targets".
The 89-metre-long ship is meant to be operational by year's end with a top speed of 18 knots, significantly increasing China's surveillance potential of the vast Pacific area it considers its zone of influence.
Armies worldwide see drone squadrons as key players in combat, able to overwhelm defence systems by sheer numbers and without putting soldiers' lives at risk, such as with more expensive jets or tanks.
"It's probably a first-of-its-kind development, but other navies across the world, including the US Navy, are experimenting with remote warfare capabilities in the maritime domain," said US Army Lt. Col. Paul Lushenko, who is also an international relations specialist at Cornell University in New York.
Even if the vessel's actual capabilities remain to be seen, Beijing is broadcasting its intent to cement territorial claims in the region.
"It's definitely imposing, provocative, escalatory and aggressive," Lushenko told AFP.
Drone swarm experiments
Building fleets of autonomous and relatively inexpensive drones would greatly augment China's ability to enforce so-called anti-access and area denial in the Pacific.
The Zhu Hai Yun could also improve China's mapping of the sea floor, providing a covert advantage for its submarines.
Unlike traditional aircraft carriers or destroyers carrying hundreds of troops, the drone carrier could itself navigate for longer periods while sending out devices that create a surveillance "net", potentially able to fire missiles as well.
"These are capabilities that are likely to be critical in any future conflicts that China wages, including over the island of Taiwan," strategists Joseph Trevithick and Oliver Parken wrote on the War Zone website in May.
Beijing has made no secret of its desire to wrest control of Taiwan, and military analysts say it is closely watching the West's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine to gauge how and when it might make its move.
Last month, Chinese researchers published a drone swarm experiment allegedly showing 10 devices autonomously navigating a dense patch of bamboo forest, without crashing into the trees or each other.
"The ultimate goal is something that has a collective intelligence," said Jean-Marc Rickli, head of risks at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
"The analogy is a bit like a school of fish. They create forms in the water that are not the decision of any single fish but the result of their collective intelligence," he told AFP.
A fleet of self-navigating drones could in theory incapacitate defence systems or advancing forces by sheer numbers, saturating combat zones on land or at sea until an opponent's arsenal is depleted.
"A conventional attack becomes impossible when you're facing dozens, hundreds or thousands of devices that are much cheaper to develop and operate than heavy conventional weapons," Rickli said.
It would be a big technological advance from current weapons, which can be programmed and semi-autonomous but must have human operators to react to unexpected challenges.
Noting this profound shift in modern warfare, a RAND Corporation study from 2020 found that while unmanned vehicles need significant improvements in onboard processing, "the overall computing capability required will be modest by modern standards -- certainly less than that of a contemporary smartphone."
"A squadron of approximately 900 personnel, properly equipped and trained, could launch and recover 300 L-CAATs every six hours, for a total of 1,200 sorties per day," it said, referring to low-cost attributable aircraft technology -- meaning devices so cheap an army can afford to lose them.
"We do have indications that China is making rapid capabilities development," Lushenko, the international relations specialist at Cornell University, said of Beijing's new drone carrier.
"What we lack is empirical data to suggest that China's one-party state can actually employ the ship in an integrated fashion in conflict."
The reveal of the Zhu Hai Yun comes on the heels of a major diplomatic setback for China late last month in the South Pacific.
The leaders of 10 Pacific island nations rebuffed China's push to bring them into Beijing's orbit during talks in the Fijian capital Suva with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The small island nations saw through Beijing's "disingenuous" offer for a regional security pact, preferring instead to remain independent of Chinese influence in government and industries.
It also follows a row between China and Australia over a number of security and trade issues, including an incident May 26 when a Chinese warplane intercepted an Australian patrol plane in international airspace.
Australia last Wednesday (June 8) insisted that its patrol plane was in international airspace when a Chinese warplane intercepted it and released a cloud of small aluminum strips, known as chaff.
Some of the chaff, which is designed to confuse radar-guided missiles, was ingested into the engines of the Australian aircraft. Canberra called the incident "very dangerous".
Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei June 7 said that the Australian P-8A anti-submarine patrol aircraft came near the airspace of the disputed Paracel Islands -- known as Xisha in China -- in the South China Sea.
He accused the Australian plane of threatening China's sovereignty and security and the Australian government of spreading "false information".
Beijing is claiming sovereignty or some form of exclusive jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea and is giving Chinese names to places across Asia as a way to build a legal case for those claims.
China's claim over the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, competes with claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.