‘Beijing’s strategy is to exploit a power vacuum’: expert on Chinese expansionism

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Senior US officials are traveling to India this week for talks between the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or ‘Quad’. This group endangers Australia, India, Japan and the United States and is widely seen as a step by like-minded democracies to confront an increasingly assertive China and its rising military power.

RFA Vietnamese’s Mai Tran recently held an email interview with Nagao Satoru, an expert on US-Japan security cooperation and a non-resident fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank. Satoru discussed China’s apparent expansive strategy in Asia-Pacific and the security ties developing between rival powers to counter it. Satoru’s comments have been edited for the duration.

RFA: What is China’s military strategy in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and the South China Sea?

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nagao: Beijing’s strategy is to exploit the situation when it finds a power vacuum. We can see some examples in the 20th century.

In the 1950s, in the South China Sea, immediately after France withdrew its troops from Indochina in 1954, China occupied half of the Paracel Islands.

In 1974, a year after the US withdrew from South Vietnam, China immediately occupied the other half of the islands.

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In the 1980s, shortly after the Soviet Union reduced its military presence in Vietnam, China expanded its territory in the Spratly Islands, occupying six territories there in 1988.

In 1992, the US military ended its 92-year presence in the Philippines. And three years later, in 1995, China occupied Mischief Reef, administered by the Philippines.

These activities demonstrate that China’s strategy is to pick the moment when the military balance shifts and power gaps appear to expand its territory.

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Satoru Nagao of the Washington, DC-based Hudson Institute, in an undated photo. Credit: Hudson Institute

RFA: Will China continue to pursue that expansionist strategy today?

nagao: If the above historical observation is true, China will continue to escalate its activities as the military balance has shifted in its favor over the past decade.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s military spending database, China increased its military spending by 76% from 2011-2020. During the same period, India increased its military spending by 34%, Australia by 33% and Japan by only 2.4%. The United States has cut its spending by 10%.

At the same time, China has been trying to expand its territorial claims in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan, the South Pacific, the Indo-China border and the Indian Ocean as it sees a power vacuum in these areas. In the waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, the Chinese Coast Guard has increased intruder activity from 12 times in 2011 to 819 times in 2013, 707 times in 2015 and 1097 times in 2019. Indian territory in 2011. It increased the number of intruders on Indian territory each year: 426 times in 2012, 473 times in 2017 and 663 times in 2019. Since 2019, China in the South China Sea has continuously simultaneously invaded the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

RFA: What is the political and military context of Quad’s birth?

nagao: The Quad’s strategic goal is to restore military balance to end the power vacuum that China is trying to fill. To do this, they must not only increase their defense budget, but also restructure their own security systems.

Historically, the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region have organized security forces based on the hub and spoke model. However, this model is no longer practical to prevent Chinese expansion.

The “hub and spoke” pattern is a grid-like arrangement like a bicycle wheel, in that it has a hub and spokes woven together to keep the wheel moving stably.

In this “hub and spoke” based security system, the wheel hub is the United States and the spokes are American allies such as Japan, Australia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea in the Indo-Pacific. This model relies heavily on the US. China’s recent expansion shows that the current system is no longer sufficient to thwart China’s expansion strategy.

Because the current security model is not working well, the United States and its allies have restructured the security system based on new connections. In this new network, American allies and partners work together and share the security burden with the United States and with each other.

Therefore, many multilateral security cooperation agreements have been concluded recently, such as US-Japan-India, Japan-India-Australia, Australia-UK-US, India-Australia-Indonesia, India-Australia-France and US-India – Israel-UAE. These forms of cooperation create a new security landscape in the region.

In that context, the Quad is just one of many examples of how countries work together and share the burden of regional security when dealing with China, a nascent military power coupled with worrying expansionist nationalism.

Indian Army soldiers are lined up next to Bofors guns at Penga Teng Tso off Tawang, near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), near China, in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on Oct. 20, 2021. Credit: AFP
Indian Army soldiers are lined up next to Bofors guns at Penga Teng Tso off Tawang, near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), near China, in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on Oct. 20, 2021. Credit: TBEN

Defending multiple fronts

RFA: How is the Quad going to address China’s expansive strategy?

nagao: The Quad’s strategy is to build a game to force China to defend multiple fronts at once. Once the Quad organizes such a network, China must simultaneously allocate defense resources against the US and Japan on the Pacific side and against India on the India-China border. Although China has been rapidly increasing military spending, the cooperation of the Quad’s four nations will keep the military balance. That will prompt China to reconsider its ambition so that peace and international order can be maintained.

The ability to attack is the core element of the above game. In Asia-Pacific, only the US has the capability to attack China. If Japan, Australia and India share the same long-range attack capability, the combined capabilities of all four Quad countries will force China to defend itself on multiple fronts.

In September 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced the creation of AUKUS, an alliance focused on helping Australia acquire and maintain eight nuclear submarines. Once Australia has a fleet of nuclear submarines with long-range strike capabilities, today’s military imbalance across the entire Asia-Pacific region will change.

Non-Quad countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea are also increasing their capabilities for long-range surface-to-surface missile strikes. These factors also contribute to the balance of power in the region.

RFA: India is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an organization created by China to counterbalance the West. So why did Japan and the US invite India to join Quad?

nagao: To deal with China, India is needed. Without India, China can concentrate its military power on Japan, on the side of the US.

And India’s attitude to China is very strong. There is no Chinatown in India. Such a country is rare in the world. India is the most aggressive country against China.

India’s involvement in SCO, BRICS, etc. does not matter. India needs a Central Asia policy, including Afghanistan. That’s why they have to participate. But India does not join the anti-American movement, even though they are in these groups.

A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Northern Army Type-90 tank participates in a tank firing competition at the Hokkaido Great Maneuver Ground in Eniwa, Hokkaido Prefecture on December 7, 2021. Credit: AFP
A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Northern Army Type-90 tank participates in a tank firing competition at the Hokkaido Great Maneuver Ground in Eniwa, Hokkaido Prefecture on December 7, 2021. Credit: TBEN

Opening the Quad

RFA: South Korea reportedly wants to attend the Quad summit in May as an observer. Does the Quad have a mechanism to open the door for other countries to join as a non-member? Which countries can join as observers?

nagao: The Quad is the counter-Chinese group. If South Korea joins, problems will arise.

South Korea has been hesitant to show a strong stance against China. China is a formal ally of North Korea and they fought (together) in Korea. In this case, South Korea cannot play a key role in the Quad if they join.

And if South Korea joins, South Korea wants to talk about the North Korean problem in the Quad meeting. But India is not interested in the matter.

In addition, if South Korea joins, Japan and South Korea will fight each other because of numerous problems, including their territorial dispute.

Therefore, if South Korea joins, the Quad will lose its main objective (to counter China).

South Korea can contribute to the Quad of the Indo-Pacific because South Korea exports weapons to bolster military capabilities in countries around China. For example, India, Indonesia and the Philippines import weapons from South Korea. South Korea can help counter China’s strategy on a case-by-case basis.

RFA: What strategy is China adopting to deal with the Quad? If countries like Vietnam and other ASEAN countries participate in the Quad, how should they participate to get more benefits but not incite China to attack?

nagao: Southeast Asian countries must stop China’s territorial expansion. But at the same time, China’s investment and trade are still influential to Southeast Asian countries. As the competition between Quad-China escalates, Southeast Asian countries must pick a side in the future. And finally, the Quad wins the match against China. Indeed, not a single country competing with the US survived (USSR, Japan, Germany). So Pro-Quad is beneficial to Southeast Asia… Gradually, Southeast Asian countries can shift their stance towards Quad, but it shouldn’t be too provocative against China. That’s pro-Quad neutrality.