ASEAN defense agencies should find it useful that the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD 2023) – to run from June 2 to 4 in Singapore – will begin with a simultaneous special session on the “Security Implications of Cyber and Technological Competition.”
SLD 2023 will happen during an epochal chapter of the post-Cold War era. Worryingly reminiscent of the lead-up to past world wars, tensions are at their highest point in Europe and the Asia-Pacific. In Europe, the war in Ukraine is unlikely to de-escalate, and its consequences could broaden and spread worldwide. In the Asia-Pacific, the action-reaction dynamics between China and the United States continue to feed tensions, making the conflict between both major powers more likely than ever.
A common feature of tensions in both geopolitical theaters is their complexity; military competition intersects with multiple domains of competition, including technology. Again worryingly, this feature is not unique to the present day. For example, relating to drone warfare, think of how the integration of machine guns and airpower revolutionized warfare during World War 1. When envisioning risks associated with subsea data cables and cable landing stations, consider how during World War 1, the British severed the German subsea telegraph cable network in the Atlantic, and the Germans attacked British telegraph stations at the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Cyber and Tech as Traditional Security Issues
Conceptually, cyber and technological issues can no longer be narrowly confined to the domains of non-traditional or economic security. They have historically been understood that way; the ASEAN Security Outlook 2021 (ASO 2021) framed cyber issues as a part of non-traditional security, while its understanding of traditional security primarily relates to major power competition and territorial sovereignty.
But to its credit, ASO 2021 recognized that the convergence of traditional and non-traditional issues will shape future security concerns. It also recognized that cyber activities and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems, Internet of Things (IoT), quantum computing, and hypersonics would add a new dimension to regional security challenges.
These challenges include how these technologies will disrupt defense capabilities and the balance of power, amplify the impact of strategic distrust and armed conflicts, and could fall into the hands of malicious non-state actors. For example, think of how man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), which militaries developed decades ago, became a national security issue due to the risk of MANPADS falling into the hands of terrorists targeting commercial airliners. More recently, the viral spread of a fake image of an explosion at the Pentagon – shared on Twitter by the Russian state-controlled news network RT and a fake Bloomberg account – demonstrated the risk that generative AI and cyber disinformation pose amid geopolitical tensions.
The ASO 2021 also highlighted the need for states to leverage ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM-Plus to discuss these issues and explore confidence-building measures to reduce the likelihood of military miscalculations in the use of cyber and emerging technologies.
There should be valuable takeaways from SLD 2023 that regional defense officials could apply as fodder for thought for future ADMM and ADMM-Plus meetings. To aid their thinking, ASEAN defense officials may require a conceptual framework that sets forth the relevant key areas from the perspective of small states and Southeast Asia. The following areas, while non-exhaustive, could constitute the framework.
Issues for ASEAN to Ponder
First is how new technologies will impact military strategy and norms. When it comes to strategy, conventional warfare could have a wider reach and asymmetric impact if militaries deploy cyber and emerging technologies more innovatively instead of only through brute force. Emerging technologies could make fighting more efficient and improve the endurance of military units. But this could result in protracted conflicts, to which existing strategies for swift and decisive victory may be less suited.
On norms, warfighting would not only be about victory or weakening the targeted nation’s resolve. It could also entail using the battlespace as a laboratory to test and develop better cyber and other technological capabilities. Cyber operations may continue even if the warring parties negotiate a détente. These are issues that concern the impact of emerging technologies on the Law of Armed Conflict and norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace.
The second issue for ASEAN to consider is the role of the private sector in defense. The war in Ukraine demonstrates the growing role of commercial tech companies such as Microsoft, Twitter, SpaceX, Palantir, and commercial drone suppliers as stakeholders in conflict and international security. But this role gives rise to several issues. Data security leaks could endanger military positions, and backing up vital data and critical applications in overseas data centers creates dependency risks.
Strategically, the interests of commercial tech companies and states could differ. It is uncertain to what extent and how long the alignment of interests – as currently seen in Ukraine – would hold, especially if states have different political systems (e.g., non-liberal democracies) or constitute smaller markets than the major powers. Given these issues, a holistic digital defense strategy should consider the power of stakeholders from inside and outside the government.
A third issue is the rising significance of cyber and tech-related minilaterals and partnerships. For example, Pillar II of AUKUS aims to develop advanced capabilities such as cyber, undersea drones, AI, and hypersonics for defense purposes. The Chip 4 alliance seeks to strengthen the resilience of the semiconductor supply chain and contain the progress of Chinese military technology. South Korea and Japan have joined the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) to bolster their digital defense.
If cybersecurity is a team sport, the war in Ukraine shows that international partners and allies are crucial in sustaining digital defense efforts. However, new cooperative efforts in this area could either complement or challenge the relevance of existing multilateral mechanisms. Moreover, certain major powers may construe these efforts as intensifying the security dilemma. These issues create a conundrum for small states seeking international partnerships to build cyber and tech capacity.
Anticipating the Challenges
SLD 2023, which opens with a special session discussing these issues, will allow ASEAN defense officials to dive deep into the implications of cyber and technological competition and what they mean for small states and Southeast Asia. At SLD 2023, officials can continue the discussion encapsulated in the ASO 2021. This endeavor is necessary for regional cooperation in emerging domains of technology.
But more importantly, it should help ASEAN defense agencies develop a better appreciation of how a conflict between major powers in the Asia-Pacific involving the use of cyber and emerging technologies could undercut the vital interests of ASEAN states and destabilize regional security.