China is turning to military robots to remake its borders

Projects such as the Underwater Great Wall and ‘battlefield robots’ and ‘exoskeleton soldiers’ are in the pipeline

China is working on a new way to expand its borders by using robots. The project, known as the Underwater Great Wall, involves sensors and unmanned vehicles to track what other nations are doing in the South China Sea or even the Indian Ocean. 

Eventually, Beijing wants the sensors to communicate threats to autonomous, underwater drones that can then move in and restrict vessels in the vicinity. In other words, China is developing a new way to limit how other nations access the South China Sea. 

And, behind this, is a massive shift. The Underwater Great Wall is a new, fluid Chinese border. Wherever China’s robots are, they will represent where China begins or ends.

This is a new paradigm moment. In the past, borders changed based on decisions made by humans. Now, they are changing based on decisions using technology.

But the South China Sea is not the only region where Chinese robots are muddying the waters. Another flashpoint border is the one with India. Amid growing tension, the Chinese have started training with “battlefield robots” and “exoskeletons” for soldiers. 

This is a two-front push. China’s battlefield robots would be able to operate in ways that expand the country’s territorial claims. Exoskeletons would also help the People’s Liberation Army patrol areas in ways that were not possible before. 

Except on the border with India, China is not alone in using high-tech solutions. For several years, India has been using its own robots to bolster its military presence on the Chinese and Pakistani borders. This means the same “fluid” approach adopted by China is being replicated by India.

Double-edged sword

Of course, the strategy could become a double-edged sword. On the one hand, robots will allow China to expand its border. But there is also a risk they could escalate already tense situations. 

What if, to expand Beijing’s control over part of the South China Sea, Chinese drones fire at innocent fishermen without Beijing’s approval? The decisions they make in the cloud will end up influencing geopolitics on the ground.

Of course, these are just physical ways China is using robots to remake its borders. But, in today’s world, the “digital sphere” is just as important. And here, China is taking equally radical steps.

Look at Malaysia. During the past two years, Chinese algorithms have spread across the nation. In cities such as Kuala Lumpur, they are managing traffic while police officers use Chinese-designed facial recognition cameras to track criminals. Alongside this, SenseTime, one of the world’s largest AI-firms, is building a US$1 billion artificial intelligence park in the country.

The image shows a yellow underwater drone in the sea. China is planning a project known as the Underwater Great Wall.
China has been using underwater drones in the South China Sea. Photo: Handout

At first glance, these look like commercial successes for China’s technology firms. But, like the Underwater Great Wall, these deals represent far more. As nations buy Chinese technology, Beijing is expanding its “digital borders.” 

Nations such as Malaysia are “plugging into” China in a new way, allowing Beijing to control critical parts of the country. For example, the Chinese algorithms managing traffic are supplied by Alibaba through a service known as “City Brain.” In the future, City Brain may manage healthcare, finance, education and government services, along with traffic. 

In other words, Chinese algorithms may be underpinning Malaysia’s capital city and maintaining the lives of the people. But with this setup, the question remains, who is running Malaysia? The Malaysian government or Chinese algorithms?

Challenging time

As robots remake China’s borders, the world will have a challenging time adapting. After all, threats of sanctions or bans no longer work in intimidating Beijing as China’s economy has now reached “superpower status.” At the same time, large swathes of the world have already bought into China’s plans. 

The Belt and Road Initiative, for instance, involves 140 countries at various level, out of the 195 nations that exist in the world today. The “established levers” that were used in the past to arbitrate disputes may not work in the Next Geopolitics of Technology.

In recent months, the world has been witnessing the rise of China’s robot-driven borders, without even realizing it. When Indonesian sailors found an unmanned Chinese submarine, little did they know this was the Underwater Great Wall in the making? 

Of course, for now, China may succeed in setting up its borders with robots. But the moment it takes action in limiting foreign vessels with drones or bending a nation by leveraging its platforms, other governments might think twice about aligning with Beijing. 

The power of China’s robots could even be viewed as a direct threat to the sovereignty of other nations if it tries to remake borders.

Abishur Prakash is an authority on the geopolitics of technology. He is a geopolitical futurist at Center for Innovating the Future (CIF), a futurism consultancy focused on making leaders and their organizations prescient. He is also the author of four books, including his latest, The Age of Killer Robots. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.