Xi Jinping Sees AI, Unmanned Tech Boosting Military’s Capabilities

Taipei — During China’s top legislative meetings this year, which wrapped up Monday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping ordered the military to develop what he called “new quality combat capabilities,” a phrase analysts say highlights a focus on the use of artificial intelligence, high-tech and intelligent warfare. It also could signal, they say, plans to build forces of unmanned ships and submarines to support military operations.

Speaking at a gathering of the People’s Liberation Army or PLA and Armed Police Force delegates to the National People’s Congress late last week about “new quality combat capabilities,” Xi called on the military to deepen its reforms and promote innovation to enhance strategic capabilities in emerging areas.

During the meeting, six representatives from the military spoke about a range of topics from defense capabilities in cyberspace and the application of AI to the development and use of unmanned combat capabilities.

Chung Chieh with the National Policy Foundation in Taipei said that based on Xi’s remarks at the meeting and comments in past speeches, his “new quality combat capability” seems to refer to intelligent combat capabilities.

“His (Xi’s) current goal is to achieve the so-called integrated development … as fast as possible,” Chieh said.

With the use of AI, for example, militaries are looking to speed up the pace of combat, shorten the time it takes for a range of tasks, such as discovering targets, carrying out strikes as well as near instant operations and even simultaneous control of many unmanned combat vehicles, he said. For major military powers, whoever can master the new combat mode first will gain the upper hand.

A report Sunday in the PLA Daily said that following the meeting, lawmakers highlighted the need to make technology a “core capability” to enhance China’s strategic power.

One lawmaker, Hao Jingwen, talked about how drone swarm technologies in air, sea and land have been developed and successively deployed in regional conflicts.

“China needs to realize the important roles, emerging areas and new quality combat capabilities could play in modern warfare, be aware of their development trends, plan battlefield applications of advanced technologies in advance, and conduct active research in fields such as big data, the Internet of Things and AI, so as to be able to win future warfare,” the PLA Daily quoted Hao as saying.

Ying-Yu Lin, an assistant professor at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University, said that while “new quality combat capabilities” seek to draw on scientific and technological capabilities, it’s hard to say how they’d be used to meet Xi’s standards — or how widely used the capabilities might be in the future.

“In fact, China itself is still trying to figure out how to do it, and it cannot clearly point out what its new quality combat capabilities are. If it wants to fight technological warfare in the future, its training methods and the talents it needs will definitely be a little different from the past,” Lin told VOA.

Lin believes that since new quality combat capabilities are based on technological development, it is bound to eliminate the traditional mentality of military training and recruit high-tech professional talents. However, he said, such talents may have better options with foreign companies or private enterprises and may not want to join the PLA.

During the plenary meeting, Xi also emphasized the need to coordinate preparation for maritime military conflicts, the protection of maritime rights and interests, maritime economic development, and to enhance maritime strategic capabilities.

Analysts said Xi’s remarks revealed Beijing’s ambitions to become a sea-power country and control sea communication lines.

Chieh said taken together the remarks about “new quality combat capability” and “preparation for maritime military conflicts” are a sign that unmanned autonomous ships will be a key development project for the PLA.

“Maybe in the future, at sea, or even in distant oceans, the Chinese Communist Party will use a large number of unmanned vehicles, such as unmanned ships and even unmanned submarines, to support its maritime operations and control of sea lines of communication,” he said.  

Adrianna Zhang from VOA’s Mandarin Service contributed to this story.

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