On January 18, during his keynote address at the Fullerton Forum, which helps set the stage for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security forum, Singapore Senior Minister of State Zaqy Mohamad highlighted artificial intelligence (AI) as an area where Asia’s defense establishments could help contribute to the promotion of wider interstate collaboration. Though far from surprising, Mohamad’s inclusion of AI as an area of focus reinforces both the opportunities and challenges in forging potential pathways for collaboration in AI within regional and global frameworks, given ongoing trends.
Though the field of AI – a catchall term for a set of technologies that enable machines to perform tasks that require human-like capabilities – has been around for decades, interest in it has surged over the past few years, including across the Asia-Pacific, with individual countries beginning to develop their own national approaches and multilateral groupings such as the OECD formulating guidance such as principles on AI. In the security realm more specifically, AI is emerging as a key topic for defense policymakers and communities alike in a range of areas, from assessments of its impact on geopolitical competition to areas of potential collaboration between some Indo-Pacific partners and their expert communities. It has also been a topic of discussion among scholars and policymakers in annual Asian security fora such as the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Xiangshan Forum.
Seen from this perspective, Mohamad’s highlighting of AI as an area of focus for Asian defense establishments was very much in keeping with these trends. As he noted in his keynote address, AI represents an emerging domain where armed forces and defense establishments can play a key role in efforts to “strengthen the international order and enhance practical cooperation” by promoting responsible state behavior, building confidence, and fostering international stability. And while he understandably did not offer much in the way of specifics in his remarks that touched on other security areas as well, some of this is already occurring among defense establishments and wider expert communities including for Singapore, be it how to develop norms around military data sharing or collaborating with partners in specific AI applications, such as disaster risk assessment, the operation of autonomous vehicle, and cyberspace operations.
To be sure, forging such collaboration would not be without its challenges. To date, the adoption of AI approaches remains uneven in Asia for a host of reasons, including capacity and political will, with discussions in regional diplomatic and security fora, including within the ASEAN umbrella, yet to progress even on general areas such as cyber norms. And as countries and their defense establishments consider specific ways to collaborate between one another, as well as within broader regional and global frameworks, they will also have to navigate past more granular issues that will require engaging a range of non-governmental stakeholders at home and with their partners abroad, be they ethical dilemmas or the additional complexities that come with greater systemic sophistication in military operations planning and decision-making – issues that can sometimes be glossed over in more optimistic assessments.
But as with other so-called “emerging” security domains such as outer space, the lack of a single, globally agreed set of norms, an underdeveloped regional institutional agenda, and diverse national frameworks ought to strengthen the case for Asia’s most dynamic countries and their defense establishments to pay more urgent attention to shaping rules of the road on AI technologies. That will in turn arguably help Asia not only to manage both the opportunities and the challenges stemming from AI, but also to shape the broader global debate and further reinforce the region’s stability and prosperity in the years to come.