Skirting the Shores

China’s New High-Tech Research Ship
Probes the Waters around Taiwan

In late 2023, a cutting-edge Chinese research vessel circumnavigated Taiwan in a rare move that went largely unreported. The Zhu Hai Yun (珠海云), which bristles with advanced monitoring and surveillance equipment, charted a course that appears intended to challenge Taiwan and probe the environment around the island. 

Chinese sources insist the ship is meant solely for civilian research. However, satellite imagery and other open-source information show that the lines separating the Zhu Hai Yun and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are exceedingly blurred. 

The Zhu Hai Yun is just one of dozens of Chinese research vessels that scour the world’s oceans collecting data on the marine environment. That data is critical to civilian scientific and commercial research but can also support military intelligence.  

Yet the capabilities of the Zhu Hai Yun stand out even among the most advanced ships in China’s research fleet. It is designed to serve as a “mothership” for over 50 unmanned air, surface, and undersea vehicles that can be deployed from its deck while underway.  

With the Zhu Hai Yun as the hub, these smaller platforms can simultaneously survey a three-dimensional area spanning 160 kilometers across, 4,000 meters above, and 1,500 meters below the ocean’s surface.

According to Yunzhou Tech, a major unmanned surface vehicle (USV) manufacturer that helped design the Zhu Hai Yun, such autonomous systems can operate together in an “unmanned ship swarm” (无人船艇集群), acting as a force multiplier for survey operations.   

While these technologies can support civilian scientific research, they also have dual-use applications. The USVs and undersea gliders carried on board the Zhu Hai Yun are equipped with advanced instrumentation such as side-scan sonar, which Chinese naval researchers have identified as useful for detecting undersea targets like mines and submarines. Other systems, like aerial drones, can be used to surveil or monitor target areas from the skies.      

The vessel also offers a platform for China to live test networked drone swarm operations, an emerging focus area for military planners in both China and the United States. These tactics, which involve overwhelming enemy defenses with waves of low-cost unmanned vehicles, have already reshaped modern warfare in Ukraine. They are also likely to play a major role in a potential conflict over Taiwan.  

China boasts the world's largest fleet of civilian research vessels. While they serve scientific and commercial purposes, they also further Beijing's strategic goals. Read the full Hidden Reach report to learn more.

Setting it further apart, the vessel’s navigation and control systems are reportedly supported by advanced artificial intelligence software, enabling it to operate autonomously for extended periods without human intervention.

Autonomous navigation for large surface vessels remains a nascent technology, and few ships of the Zhu Hai Yun’s size and range can operate without human guidance. Within the U.S. Navy, the new Expeditionary Fast Transport vessel (EPF 13) is the largest vessel to boast autonomous capabilities. At 103 meters, it is only 14 meters longer than the Zhu Hai Yun.

Huangpu Shipyard, China​. July 24, 2022​. Copyright © 2024 by Maxar Technologies

Huangpu Shipyard, China​. July 24, 2022​. Copyright © 2024 by Maxar Technologies

Huangpu Shipyard, China​. July 24, 2022​. Copyright © 2024 by Maxar Technologies

Huangpu Shipyard, China​. July 24, 2022​. Copyright © 2024 by Maxar Technologies

Huangpu Shipyard, China​. January 7, 2023.​ Copyright © Airbus DS 2024

Huangpu Shipyard, China​. January 7, 2023.​ Copyright © Airbus DS 2024

Satellite imagery and publicly available evidence reveal close ties between the Zhu Hai Yun and the PLA. Construction on the vessel began in 2021 at the Huangpu Shipyard in Guangzhou, one of China’s most prolific naval shipyards.  

Imagery from July 24, 2022, shows the Zhu Hai Yun moored side by side with a Type 056A corvette, a modern PLA Navy warship designed for anti-submarine warfare. At least four other warships, in addition to two Type 056 corvettes likely transferred from the PLA Navy to the China Coast Guard, can also be seen nearby. 

More recent imagery from January 2023, taken just days before the vessel was delivered to its owner, shows it docked on its own in the same location.  

Under construction nearby are two Type 054A guided-missile frigates, with another unidentified hull protruding from the adjacent construction hall.  

View the fully annotated satellite imagery here.

These close physical ties are indicative of the blurred lines between civilian and military shipbuilding in China.

Records indicate that the Zhu Hai Yun was built by the 704th Research Institute, a subsidiary of the massive state-owned defense contractor China State Shipbuilding Corporation. In 2020, the U.S. Commerce Department placed the 704th Research Institute on its Entity List for illegally acquiring U.S.-origin equipment to support the PLA. 

The Zhu Hai Yun’s military connections extend beyond the shipyard. Its primary operator is the Southern Marine Science and Engineering Guangdong Laboratory (Zhuhai), a lab owned by the Zhuhai municipal government and run by Sun Yat-sen University (SYSU).  

SYSU is closely linked to the PLA. In 2015, the U.S. government blacklisted an entity within SYSU over its role in hosting the National University of Defense Technology’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer, which supports China’s nuclear weapons program. The SYSU Southern Marine Lab openly promotes both the Zhu Hai Yun and the Tianhe-2 supercomputer as key platforms for its work. 

China’s own government has hinted at the vessel’s ties with the defense sector. The powerful State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) lists updates about the Zhu Hai Yun under the “military science and technology” (军工科技) section of its website. 

The evident linkages between the Zhu Hai Yun and China’s military ecosystem raise questions about its November 2023 voyage around Taiwan. The operation’s true purpose remains unknown, but its unique and carefully calculated route suggests it went beyond a standard research mission.  

While China’s scientific research vessels frequently operate close to Taiwan (including within its claimed exclusive economic zone), most focus on the area southwest of the island near the disputed Pratas (Dongsha) Island. Activities along Taiwan’s eastern coast are historically rare but may be increasing as China gradually ramps up pressure on the island. 

Data accessed from the Windward intelligence platform reveals that, besides the Zhu Hai Yun, only two other Chinese research vessels since 2015 have operated along Taiwan’s east coast in a manner that was not suggestive of either direct transit or surveying the seabed for deposits of natural resources. Just one of those vessels, operating in 2021, circled Taiwan in a route similar to the Zhu Hai Yun’s but did not venture nearly as close to the island. 

The Zhu Hai Yun’s close approach to Taiwan’s 24-nautical mile (nm) contiguous zone is significant. In recent years, PLA planes and warships have increasingly pushed closer to the island’s contiguous zone to erode Taipei’s claims of sovereignty over its surrounding waters and airspace. During large-scale military exercises around Taiwan in April 2023, several PLA vessels intentionally intruded into Taiwan’s contiguous zone in a rare and provocative maneuver. 

Taiwan’s military commanders have made clear that they will “strike back” against any PLA “entities” that enter Taiwan’s 12 nm territorial waters, but the larger contiguous zone is a murkier gray area.  

Navigating along the border of Taiwan’s contiguous zone could also have allowed the Zhu Hai Yun to collect information about the location and activities of Taiwan’s military assets. Several of Taiwan’s major military facilities, including key air bases in Hualien and Taitung, are nestled against the island’s mountainous eastern coast.  

The Zhu Hai Yun is just the latest of a set of modern capabilities that Beijing is rapidly testing and fielding that could give China new options for pursuing its military, political, and strategic objectives. While the vessel is not designed to fight with the PLA, it can carry out dual-use missions in key strategic regions of the seas without placing Beijing in hot water. 

Written by Matthew P. Funaiole, Aidan Powers-Riggs, Brian Hart.

Imagery analysis by: Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Jennifer Jun

Special thanks: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI)

Snapshots from Hidden Reach pairs satellite imagery with targeted analysis to spotlight new developments in China’s overseas activities.

Produced by Michael Kohler.

Illustration by Gab K. De Jesus.

Design support by William Taylor.

Copyediting support by Katherine Stark.

Photo: WHY Photography via Getty Images

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