“Every period of human development has had its own particular type of human conflict—its own variety of problem that, apparently, could be settled only by force. And each time, frustratingly enough, force never really settled the problem. Instead, it persisted through a series of conflicts, then vanished of itself—what’s the expression—ah, yes, ‘not with a bang, but a whimper,’ as the economic and social environment changed. And then, new problems, and a new series of wars.”
– Isaac Asimov,
The elephant and the dragon
No analysis of the APAC region is complete without an understanding of the tensions in the region. There are two giants in this story, China and India, and as economic power swings towards the APAC region [Core: THE NEXT BIG ECONOMY], they become uniquely positioned to flex their muscles in ways that have powerful consequences for the APAC region. Of particular use here is the Lowy Institute’s interactive Asia Power Index. China, under its one-party government, is presently the second-highest power on that index.
The ripple effects of these changes are vast, reaching beyond economics and well into the political situation of nations in the APAC. For example, Karl Vendell Satinitigan, Director at the Office of Senator Bam Aquino, highlights a perceived rise of authoritarianism and greater tolerance towards strongman rule in the region; Roshan Paul, founder of Amani institute, points to India becoming increasingly right-leaning and slipping towards populist authoritarianism; while Mike Rios of 17 Triggers points to an increasing disillusionment around democracy among the youth of Cambodia, and an increasing preference for Chinese influence.
China’s swing into economic superpower status has been closely followed by its military. Varying figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the US Department of Defense (DoD) put China’s military spending north of $200 billion as of 2018 – a sum larger than the GDP of most countries. Much of this spending is in significantly ramping up China’s naval capacity, in the pursuit of Xi Jinping’s reforms. By 2030 China is predicted to be both be the world’s second-largest navy and the dominant regional power in the region, replacing the United States.
An interesting facet of this power is China’s pursuit of large, cheap, AI-powered unmanned submarines such as the vehicle HN-1, which seem poised to give it a new edge alongside its traditional strength of a large standing army. The principle tension here is around the South China Sea, a critical commercial and strategic region that China has disputed for a while. China’s drone submarines are set to seriously challenge US control over the oceans – a situation some Western observers are already describing in terms framing an underwater cold war. Occasionally, a hint of almost science-fictional research milestones trickles down into gray literature – such as a ship-mounted electromagnetic railgun. The US has opposed such build-up of power in the South China Sea, and recently responded in drone-kind, making the decision to supply 34 ScanEagle surveillance drones to Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam. The future of the South China Sea looks to be one filled with AI-assisted angels of death hunting each other through the air and through the water.
Then comes India, presently at #4 on the Power Index (behind Japan). India has, since 1947, had conflicts with Pakistan, particularly over the Kashmir region; the violence has exacerbated in recent times. By 2030, India is expected to have the world’s third-highest military expenditure, behind the US and China and its expectations mirror a two-front focus: one against China, and one against Pakistan.
To understand India’s relationship with China, we must re-examine China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or the “21st Century Silk Road”: an ambitious project that will touch some 71 countries, from Asia to Europe to Oceania to East Africa. This USD 1 trillion behemoth project is set to sprawl across strategic geographical land corridors and shipping routes and reshape the geopolitics of the APAC region. Not everyone is a fan of this approach: the ambitious plan, which puts China at the forefront of regional logistics, has been met with political ambiguity from India. The United States has an even longer opposition to it: a 2004 report by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (“Energy Futures in Asia”) posited that China would use this strategy (titled the “string of pearls” by said report) to establish military bases reaching from South China to the Middle East. The construction of this string seems to be in effect, with China being (by some Western observers) accused of using ‘debt-trap’ economics to establishing leverage in countries. Not all observers (and beneficiaries of the BRI) agree with the debt-trap narrative.
However, India has seen a more radical face of the Belt and Road Initiative: in 2017, Chinese troops began extending a road into Doklam – an area between Bhutan, Tibet and the Sikkim state of India (and claimed by both the Chinese as well as Bhutan). Indian troops entered the area to halt construction, possibly because the construction could bring Chinese troops dangerously close to Siliguri, the city that connects Northeast India, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the rest of India. In the months that followed, thousands of troops on both sides were placed at the borders, much political grandstanding occurred, and the situation dragged on for a year. Meanwhile, Pakistan, with which India has had repeated conflict over the decades, is commonly described as China’s ‘Iron Brother’ – due to historical partnerships as well as rising investments into Pakistan as part of the BRI.
India’s military strategy, thus, seems inextricably shaped by the Belt and Road Initiative, given its stated war readiness towards Pakistan and China. India’s recent moves in Kashmir paint it in particularly aggressive light. Despite China being India’s largest trading partner – and a particularly important source of electronics – Indian public opinion seems to be swinging against China, with calls to boycott Chinese products. Meanwhile, India also appears to be seeking autonomous undersea power – although many of these moves appear to be reactions to China rather than parts of an aggressive expansion strategy. Any conflict here would affect both the geopolitics and the economies of the vast chunk of the Indian subcontinent.
Surprisingly, Japan’s less-paraded investments often go unremarked upon; reporting around IMF data shows that Japanese investments in the region outstrip China’s by tens of billions of dollars: the attention seems to be purely on the conflict between the dragon and the tiger. As nationalization, anti-globalism, and differing views on what regional integration should look like emerge, we expect conflict in the region to rise in regular bursts, even if they never escalate into full-on war; and as the dragon and the tiger bludgeon their way towards economic superiority, smaller countries may be used as proxy economic battles between the largest nations in the world. Exacerbating this is a rapidly growing demographic of young people [Core: FEEDING THE BEAST] with limited economic opportunity [Core: THE NEXT BIG ECONOMY]. On such bombshells do we now sit. The danger, as PriceWaterHouseCoopers estimates, is that in the run-up to 2050, policymakers will have to actively prevent a global slide back into protectionism.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
One key element in the narrative is the overwhelming focus on submarines. AMI International’s projections show continued, relentless growth in submarine markets even past 2030 from the Asia Pacific – with the biggest improvements in existing submarine forces coming from China, India, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Programs in Taiwan, and planned nuclear submarine acquisitions in South Korea and Pakistan, represent smaller improvements.
Tiny Singapore is the David among the Goliaths we’ve talked about. In its role overseeing the congested sea lanes connecting the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, Singapore spends a higher percentage of its GDP on defense than the US. Over a 2030 timescale, it seems that Singapore is working furiously towards embracing the human + AI narrative [Core: THE 4TH INDUSTRIAL PROLETARIAT]. Kelvin Wong, a Singapore-based analyst for Jane’s (a major defense trade publication), posits that automation is key to Singapore’s military strategy due to a rapidly aging population [Core: FEEDING THE BEAST] and a corresponding lack of workers available. The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) talks, in particular, of two major, tech-heavy projects. One is the Littoral Mission Vehicle (LMV), co-developed with the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) and Singapore Technologies Marine. “Automation, sense-making and decision support systems for both combat and platform systems” allow the multi-mission LMV to operate with a smaller baseline crew. The second project are the Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), which would presumably replace the manned coastal patrol ships. Technical details suggest fully automated detection and classification systems for eradicating sea mines.
The advent of the 4th Industrial Revolution brings about an additional dimension to the way countries address conflict – both external and internal. We have examined elsewhere the rising trend towards data protectionism [Core: THE 4TH INDUSTRIAL PROLETARIAT]. Of concern here is the the rising importance of cyberwarfare as a viable offensive weapon. A paper from Hanyu Chwe from Northeastern University lays out the argument in simple terms: cyberspace is growing increasingly valuable, few human activities are now free of the Internet, and for the “first time in history, it is possible for a state to weather attacks that damage their military, economic, or industrial infrastructures and not be able to confidently determine the identity of their attacker.” What started with the 2007 attack on the nation of Estonia will only keep growing.
The argument is sound. RAND Corporation analysis points to the United States and Russia being locked in a relentless battle over the online space; TIME documents US cyberstrikes on Iran. Many cyber attacks have already been placed at the hands of state-sponsored agents – the APTs (Advanced Persistent Threats) include the likes of Dragonfly, which tends to go after US and UK power grids; Whitefly, a group known to be targeting Singapore in particular, stealing 1.5 million patient health records; the Stone and Gothic Panda teams, linked to the Chinese Ministry of State Security; the most sophisticated cyber-espionage operation on the planet – the Equation Group – linked to the Tailored Access Operations (TAO) group of the US National Security Agency (NSA).
This action isn’t limited to states; in fact, the new fear is that of non-state cyberwarfare, where private actors have as much or more power than governments [Satellite: IoT as a threat]. As governments and infrastructure become increasingly connected in the APAC, particularly in developing countries, cyberwarfare becomes an increasingly powerful threat in the region. For example, the new data protection policies emerging from India declare that the Indian government now has the right to access a citizen’s personal communications, whether stored on an Indian platform or elsewhere. The potential for being hacked, and the disruption thereof, is expected to be enormous when paired with Aadhar, the Indian identity system running under the auspices of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. Everything from voting to pensions and money transfers are linked to a citizen’s fingerprints, iris, and face photograph. A powerful push from the Indian government has turned Aadhar into possibly the largest biometric database in the world, with over 1.23 billion people in the system as of the time of writing; both a powerful weapon and a lucrative target for cyberwarfare operations.
One of the difficulties of this line of thinking is, firstly, the presence of “unknown unknowns” as Donald Rumsfield famously put it. What is publicly known and written about, particularly in the field of war, is often behind the times. The other difficulty is to identify the fine lines that separate realism from paranoia from outright science fiction, and to stay within the scope of our research. For example, Matt Carr, in a 2010 paper on military futurism, pointed out that out that:
“Faced with a future that seems fraught with unpleasant surprises, the Pentagon has embarked on some outlandish and even bizarre attempts to try to reduce the element of uncertainty and unpredictability. One ongoing project aims to recruit social scientists to compile a computerised database of cultural, religious and political beliefs in every country in the world that will supposedly enable the military to predict which countries are most likely to succumb to unrest, insurgency or terrorism. In 2002, the Pentagon’s cutting edge Defense and Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) came close to introducing a ‘terrorism futures market’ based on the financial futures market, which invited bets on when and where terrorist events were likely to occur in order to predict them beforehand. This scheme was abandoned when it was pointed out that some organisations might deliberately carry out attacks in order to profit from them. In 2007, DARPA awarded Lockheed Martin a contract to develop an ‘Integrated Crises Early Warning System’ (ICEWS) that its designers claimed will ‘anticipate and respond to worldwide political crises and predict events of interest and stability of countries of interest with greater than 80 percent accuracy’ in the same way that meteorologists predict the weather.”
- As mentioned earlier [Core: FEEDING THE BEAST], conflict over water resources remains a possibility. Given the shared rivers and tributaries in the region, India and Pakistan maintain a water treaty that has, as of late, come under some fire. Indian politicians have threatened to weaponize water supplies, and India has recently been accused of releasing water in the river Sutlej in a manner that could cause flooding across the border. “They try to isolate diplomatically, they try to strangulate economically, they’re trying to strangulate our water resources – and water automatically will have an impact on your economy, your agriculture and your irrigation,” claimed Muzammil Hussain, chairman of the Pakistani government’s Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Water Resources, as far back as 2005, coined the narrative of “fight for every drop of water or die,” although actual militant action remains to be seen.
- The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has also unveiled plans for ‘Smart Air Bases’, an almost science-fictional system-of-systems – featuring automated aircraft inspection carried out with sensors and unmanned vehicles; a fleet management that handles insights on aircraft performance and recommends repairs; ‘drone-catcher’ counter-drone capabilities; and self-organizing drones to examine and repair runways. Whether this is a natural progression of a country with an decreasing worker:dependent ratio, or the result of the unique geopolitical situation Singapore finds itself in, remains to be seen.
- Kelvin Wong also points to a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ trend in Southeast Asia that keeps the region littered with military tech – even when it doesn’t make sense. “Thailand owns an aircraft carrier without any aircraft. Indonesia dedicated about a sixth of its military budget to the purchase of 11 Russian Su-35 fighter jets. And Malaysia splurged on two French submarines it couldn’t figure out how to submerge.”
- The Bay of Bengal, and the BIMSTEC coalition, seems to be increasing in importance on a 2030 timeframe. Udayan Das, Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, highlights both India’s intent in establishing a new maritime order within its immediate sphere of operations – as well as the issues of political will that make this a weak signal: after all, the BIMSTEC is a relatively old coalition that has not yet delivered on its initial promises. However, as China and its BRI expand, the Bay of Bengal nations may present a viable counterthrust and a check on influence in the region.
- Lastly, we would like to end with the signal around a potential tidal wave of misinformation – call it ‘The Era of Forgery’. Much of the zeitgeist of 2018 was around “fake news”, misinformation, and vote manipulation. Some platforms, by sheer dint of existing with their particular network-oriented model, have already become hotbeds of cruder versions of these efforts, prompting the rise of civil society to counter. In most cases, however, these efforts have been of little use against the tide; and the fact remains that the technology behind existing fake news efforts is far behind the bleeding edge of AI advances today [Satellite: THE FIGHT AGAINST FAKE NEWS]. New advances in automated text generation have led to AI that produce reports and articles so close to “natural” that they fear it may be weaponized. The open-source TensorFlow framework has proved incredibly successful at mapping the face of someone on to another, leading to the rise of celebrity porn known as DeepFakes. The same technology was used by actor Jordan Peele to impersonate Barack Obama insulting Donald Trump. Software like Adobe VoCo allows anyone to change the speech in a video by simply typing in an alternate voiceover, which is then rendered in the speech of the subject in the video. Manipulation of other landscape and imaging data: already, a type of neural network called GANs have been demonstrated in faking satellite imagery and map data. The majority of public mapping services in the world rely on open data, which can very easily be overrun with this subtle fakery; the threat is so serious that Andrew Hallman, head of the CIA’s Digital Directorate, has framed this as “an existential battle for truth in the digital domain”. This Person Does Not Exist, an experiment demonstrating the power of GANs to create perfectly realistic images of people, shows how much easier identity fraud will become. We expect these technologies to become even cheaper, more accessible, and eventually embedded into apps and easy-to-deploy software suites that make a completely new class of fake news content possible at far lower costs and greater speed than ever before. We have not seen anything in policy anticipating this.
- Lastly, not all downstream uses of military technology are harmful. China, for example, is making heavy investments in drones – to solve logistics issues for disaster response, and to reach areas otherwise impossible to access.
This report has been written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Merl Chandana, Sriganesh Lokanathan and Shazna Zuhyle of LIRNEasia with commissioning by the UNDP Regional Innovation Centre (RIC) as an exploratory and intellectual analysis; the views and opinions published in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the official position or policy of the RIC, United Nations Development Programme or any United Nations agency or UN Member States.