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Indo-Pacific allies investing in AI technology for military application

Joseph Hammond

Indo-Pacific partners are moving toward closer cooperation in digital technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), to boost security and counter Chinese attempts to dominate the digital realm.

Moves by the United States to foster AI collaboration in the region illustrate this trend, as does talk of a trilateral digital trade deal involving Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

The U.S. will spend nearly U.S. $1.5 billion on AI research and development over the next five years “to compete to win,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in July 2021.

Austin’s comments followed a May 2021 pledge by Washington and Seoul to “encourage joint R&D [research and development] on critical and emerging technologies through programs nurturing AI.” Then, in September, the group known as the Quad — Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — agreed to establish contact groups on advanced communications and AI “focusing on standards-development activities as well as foundational pre-standardization research.”

“Japan, Australia, [South] Korea, Singapore, India are the ones that come out initially in terms of who to engage and integrate on this,” Abraham Denmark, acting director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy, said at an event hosted by the U.S.-based Wilson Center in September 2021, titled “AI and Allies in the Indo-Pacific: Enhancing Shared Security and Defense.”

Denmark emphasized the threat posed by the People’s Republic of China and its “ability to devote significant amounts of investment into its military and its defense industries, and drive that in a way that’s not driven by market forces but rather by their national interests.” He noted that efforts to counter Beijing through multilateral collaboration can be frustrated by political and bureaucratic barriers.

To facilitate matters, the U.S. is backing an initiative for a regional digital trade agreement to secure the free interchange of digital information among the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific partners, according to Japan’s Nikkei Asia news magazine. The objective is to create digital industry regulations covering topics such as cross-border data transfers, privacy protection and AI use. The agreement would lay the groundwork for a digital arena that allows businesses to function more smoothly as innovation creates more data and content to share.

“The ability to develop and effectively employ data, its algorithms, applications, hardware — and the ability to deploy them — is an issue which is ineffectively handled by a coalition effort in the region,” Saeed Khan, an international relations expert at Wayne State University in the U.S., told the Wilson Center audience. “Doing so will likely also lead to better outcomes in the most crucial aspect of the artificial intelligence puzzle — talent and the people behind it.”

The growing U.S. interest in AI defense applications is welcomed by U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific, many of which are working on comparable technology, Denmark said. Approximately 90% of the world’s high-volume, cutting-edge integrated circuits are produced in East Asia. As a result, it is probable that Indo-Pacific partners will not only be significant consumers of such technology but will also drive their future development.



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