May 20, 2024

Experts link up in Thailand for US-China Track 2 dialogue on AI

Source: DefenseScoop

Journalist: Brandi Vincent

“The whole point of a Track 2 dialogue is to have open and candid discussions between countries that might not be able to have those same discussions at the official government level,” Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, a retired Air Force pilot and first director of the Defense Department’s Joint AI Center (which later merged with other organizations to form the Chief Digital and AI Office), told DefenseScoop in an interview before he left for that engagement.

While Track 1 dialogues are formal meetups by professional diplomats and other government insiders, Track 2 engagements are led by non-governmental experts and practitioners.

In separate conversations earlier this month leading up to the event in Thailand, Shanahan and a former senior U.S. official also deeply involved (who spoke to DefenseScoop on the condition of anonymity) provided new details about their expectations for this latest closed-door Track 2 meeting. They asked DefenseScoop to hold publication until after the dialogue concluded, citing aims to “protect the process,” but agreed to share more information once they leave Asia.

“I’m not doing this just because it makes me feel good. I’ve got plenty on my plate to do without having to do this. But I believe that — given the gravity of what we’re talking about when we talk about lethal autonomous weapon systems, when we talk about AI and nuclear command and control — why would we not want these unofficial dialogues to help inform what we hope will be more and more official talks? Because AI is just too important right now, and there’s just too much going on worldwide,” Shanahan said.


When Shanahan got involved around 2020, right after retiring from DOD, the Chinese and American Track 2 participants were developing mutual definitions and a voluntary code of conduct for the use of autonomous weapons by their militaries.

“It took us a while to understand, with the Chinese, that they look at lethal autonomous weapons systems — in their definition — just differently than we [from the U.S.] did. And we were talking past each other,” Shanahan explained.

It wasn’t until they “both really put things down in print,” he said, that they were able to really grasp the differences in their societies’ understanding and perception of AI.

“You can translate any word in any language — but it’s more than translation. It’s actually an interpretation, it’s how it’s used. We might say ‘system,’ but the Chinese might say ‘platform,’ or at least it translates to platform. So, you have to work your way through this,” Shanahan noted.


“But this goes even further than that. AI test and evaluation is different enough that you want to talk about it. And we want to explain why it’s in our best interest as a community — as an international community — we’ve got to get this right,” Shanahan told DefenseScoop.


Shanahan said he “understands completely” that many people have a more pessimistic view of these types of unofficial, behind-the-scenes engagements.

“I can be cynical at times, as well. But I just believe that we ought to try, and I walk into every meeting with my eyes wide open,” he told DefenseScoop.

“I know it gets, I think, falsely attributed to [Winston] Churchill, but whoever it was that said ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’ — it’s the same thing, just said a little bit differently. So, what comes out of it remains to be seen, but I would say I’m actually pleased that we’ve gotten as far as we’ve gotten, so far,” Shanahan said.

Read the full story and more from Defense Scoop.


  • Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Technology and National Security Program

    Lieutenant General John (Jack) N.T. Shanahan, United States Air Force, Retired, retired in 2020 after a 36-year military career. In his final assignment he served as the inaug...