Exclusive Interview with Dr Satoru Nagao

Usanas Foundation brings you an exclusive interview with Dr Satoru Nagao as part of our new 'Quad and Quad Plus Dialogues'.

Exclusive Interview with Dr Satoru Nagao


By Debdoot Basu Ray

Usanas Foundation held a timely interview with Dr Satoru Nagao concerning the future of Japan in Indo-Pacific, Chinese aggression in the region and overall regional security. The interview was conducted by Rushali Saha and covered pertinent questions on how Japan views the EU and QUAD in the Indo-Pacific region and Indo-Japanese relations as it continues to evolve to the present day.

Dr Satoru Nagao is Visiting Fellow at Hudson Institute. His research area is US-Japan-India security cooperation. Dr Nagao was awarded his PhD by Gakushuin University in 2011 for his thesis titled “India’s Military Strategy”, the first such research thesis on this topic in Japan. Gakushuin University is a premier institute from which members of the Japanese Imperial Family have also graduated. 

He is also Research Fellow at Institute for Future Engineering (strategy, defence policy), Visiting Research Fellow at Research Institute for Oriental Cultures in Gakushuin University, Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Associate at Society of Security and Diplomatic Policy Studies, Research Fellow at Security and Strategy Research Institute for Japan, Senior Fellow at Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Senior Research Fellow of Indian Military Review.

The transcript of the interview is as follows: 

RS: First, I would like to begin with the hot topic of Japan’s White Paper of 2021, which for the first time mentions Taiwan stability as important for Japan’s security. How would you read the White paper? Is it a radical departure from the past? What are the implications of this for the Indo-Pacific region as a whole?

SN: This is a very important White Paper, I can say. Yes, content is very important, but most important is the cover page. Imagine the cover page where you check that the white paper in the past and the white paper now, you can understand the meaning. This year, the white paper published by the Ministry of Defense has a samurai on its cover page, a very strong and powerful samurai. Why? Because this cover page has a message. In the past white paper published by the Ministry of Defenses looks just like a white paper, but this year the symbol of samurai is powerful, shows strength. This is completely different because this white paper tried to advertise a powerful image of Japan, which Japan wished to avoid, wished to forget. That is the reason this is very important. So, what kind of message does it send? There are three messages, I believe. Firstly, towards China which says that do not underestimate Japan. Japan is here; you cannot be number one. That is the message to deter China’s aggressiveness, its pressure against Taiwan. Secondly, to the domestic audience, to the Japanese, we need to change. In the past, because of the image of Japan, Japan worries people have forgotten the strength of Japan, as a samurai, as strong. But this time, China is rising, and the crisis is rising, and, in this case, Japan must stand against them. Japan wants to show the cover page to the domestic audience that we need to stand against this threat. The third message is to the Ministry of Defense, where you need to show your good performance. You are the last fortress of Japan, and that is the third message. That is why this is a completely different message from what Japan sent in the past. This is new, and, in this case, Taiwan is a very important part of it because there is a high possibility that China is preparing a military operation against Taiwan. Any military operation is not easy to identify as China has plenty of options. But Japan needs to support Taiwan and deter China’s aggressiveness. There is a reason Taiwan is supported by Japan to deter against China; that is a very important message of the white paper. And Taiwan is well related to Japan’s security because Taiwan is located just in front of the coastline of China, and that coastline is the centre of the economic development of China. If Taiwan is still with the US side, this means that this area is very important in maintaining the power balance in this region. If China takes Taiwan, the power balances will change. This is very important. Furthermore, if China invades Taiwan, it automatically China needs to attack Japan. This is because Japan is very near to Taiwan. The Okinawa Prefecture at the west edge of Japan is just 111 Km from Taiwan. The Senkaku Islands is located 170 Km from Japan. Currently, the range of a common missile is 200-300 km, so once China starts to invade Taiwan, automatically Japan is located in the warzone. To support Taiwan, the US will use Japan’s territorial air. Through the south-western islands, including the Okinawa Prefecture and the other islands. So, in this case, to cut the US supply, China would have to attack the US in Japan’s naval territories. So, in this case, Japan needs to deal with China if they attack Taiwan or the US. Automatically this area is connected with Japan’s security. China is intimidating Taiwan militarily repeatedly. 28 Chinese military aeroplanes entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. These are the situations Japan needs to deal with, and hence this white paper is important. Japan is trying to show its strength to deter China’s aggression against Taiwan. That is the reason this year; this white paper has a big message. 

RS: There is a lot of talk about the militarization of the Indo-Pacific. How well prepared is Japan to deal with a militarized Indo-Pacific? 

SN: When we check China’s military expansion, there is a pattern. In the South China Sea, when France withdrew from Vietnam, China occupied half of the Paracel Islands in the 1950s. When the US withdrew from Vietnam, China took the remaining half of the Island in the 1970s. In the 1980s, China takes parts of the Spratly Islands after Soviet troops decreased their number in Vietnam. In the 1990s, China occupied the mischief reef after the US withdrew from the Philippines. There is a pattern. When China finds a power vacuum, they try to steal it. So, if a country around China maintains the military balance, we can deter China’s aggressiveness. Maintaining the military balance means no power vacuum for China to steal. That is why maintaining the military balance is very important. That is the reason the Indo-Pacific or QUAD is very important. Japan was the pioneer of this idea when PM Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian parliament in 2007 to introduce the ideas of Indo-Pacific and QUAD. Even if he does not use these words exactly, the idea is the same. Because, if the US, Japan, Australia and India co-operate, China needs to divide its defence budget in multi-direction, against Japan, against India, against the US at the same time. It becomes easier for these four countries to maintain military balance in the region to deter China’s aggressiveness. If India takes the responsibility of increasing security in the Indian Ocean, the US can concentrate their warships on the Pacific side. Japan can concentrate its ships on the Pacific side and can help in maintaining military balance. If these countries support the defence capabilities of the Southeast Asian countries, of course, China needs to deal with them; it will be easier to maintain military balance. By maintaining a military balance and preventing a power vacuum, we can deter China’s aggressiveness. This will prevent China from stealing power, and that is the concept. 

RS: A lot has been written about QUAD being directed towards China. What are your views on this? Do you see a QUAD Plus shaping up? If yes, which countries are best suited to fit in this arrangement?  

SN: Japan was the pioneer of the idea of QUAD. As I have already said that in his address to the Indian parliament in 2007, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced the idea. There are three reasons why he needed this idea. The first reason is that this region is rising. The Pacific region is rising. The Indian Ocean is rising economically, so we need both to be included together at the same time. This leads to the second reason. If China dominates this region, it will be a nightmare, and we cannot accept it. To prevent China’s dominance in the Indo Pacific, these countries need to work with each other. When you check the QUAD, the QUAD is a group of great powers except for China in the Indo Pacific. That is the reason QUAD must cooperate to maintain military balance with China. Thirdly, the most important country in the Indo Pacific QUAD is India. Why? We can compare Indo Pacific with the traditional Asia Pacific. Which country is the most important in the Indian Ocean region? India. QUAD is the same. Japan and Australia are US allies. There are many chances for them to co-operate. But why do we say QUAD? Why does Prime Minister Abe need to say QUAD? Because there is a newcomer called India. Japan wants to cooperate with India because the Indo Pacific and QUAD is there. Now we are talking about the QUAD plus. Because to deter China, we need reinforcements. Reinforcements mean “plus” is needed. We need to remember that QUAD is not a formal alliance; it is not a treaty-based alliance. It is more flexible, works case by case. It is more like a coalition of the willing. So, case by case, we can include QUAD plus. For example, Canada, if China takes a hostage of Canada, we can support Canada to take back from China. In this case, Canada is a plus. If China invades Taiwan, Taiwan can be a plus. If China invades Vietnam, Vietnam can be a plus. Vietnam is not a democratic country, but we have similar interests. That is why Vietnam can join the QUAD plus as a plus. This is flexible; case by case, QUAD can support and aid countries that have similar interests. 

RS: How does Japan view the EU’s participation in the Indo-Pacific? 

SN: EU’s role is very important. One of the problems of China is the problem of value. If China becomes a successful model, many countries will change their political regime from democracy to authoritarian, because China is an authoritarian country. EU is a collection of countries based on Western values. Western values include democracy, respect for human lives, etc. This type of rule-based order is important for maintaining order in the current world. China is trying to change the world and its values. Free countries are decreasing, and non-free countries are increasing. That is why cooperation with the EU will be value-based cooperation. At the same time, the EU wishes to counter China's infrastructure projects, which includes the Belt and Road initiative. China is buying countries around the world, especially poor countries. They suggest infrastructure projects with high-interest rates. If the political regime of these countries changes from Pro-China to anti-China, they ask them to return the money. That is why Sri Lanka lost Hambantota Port. China leased the port for 99 years because Sri Lanka cannot return the debt. There are similar cases in the world, not only in the Indo Pacific but also in Africa. QUAD and the EU need to provide alternative infrastructure projects. Because there is no alternative infrastructure project, Sri Lanka had to accept China's proposal. Just after the Sri Lanka civil war, no country wanted to support the infrastructure project except China. There need to be alternate infrastructure projects to prevent China's debt trap. That is why the EU is very important.

RS: Japan has been one of the earliest advocates of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct. Could you elaborate on how Japan views the region? Has its conceptualization changed in view of the newer geopolitical realities, such as the rise of China?

SN: During the COVID-19 crisis, China put sanctions on Australia because Australia asked the international community to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 virus. They had also taken Canada hostage and did many sins at the same time. Under these conditions, the US rivalry with China has escalated. Under such situations, what will happen is very important. We look at the future of the Indo Pacific; we ask the question, “what kind of future will we see?”. In my opinion, because of the US history, the US has a long strategy to win the conflict against China. In the last 245 years of U.S. history, the US spent the last 169 years changing from a British colony to the only superpower in the world. During this time, a lot of powers disappeared because they lost the competition with the United States. In the process of the US primary long-term strategy, for example, before World War Two with Japan, the US planned the Orange Plan to win the competition with Japan. The US also implemented the Red Plan against the British and Canada. During the two World Wars, the US supported the British, but between the wars, the US created a plan against the British. It is understandable because the United States has plans for every situation. So, there is a high possibility that there is a long-term plan against China. That is the reason the Trump administration and Biden administration share the same policy, but before there is a plan, can they implement it? So, due to this kind of process, there is a high possibility that in the future, the US will win the competition against China, based on their long-term strategy. So, if this kind of situation will happen—what is QUAD’s role? If the US wins the competition against China, the US will have a new world order after the competition. In this case, in the Indo Pacific, QUAD includes all of the great powers except China. QUAD will lead this region in the future. That is why the QUAD is very important. The potential of QUAD is very big, and we cannot underestimate that. 

RS: How far do you see the India-Japan partnership play a role in QUAD and the Indo-Pacific region in general?

SN: Traditionally, for more than 70 years US, Australia and Japan have been able to coordinate very well, but India is new to this. These countries need to understand India, but at the same time, India needs to understand these countries as well. That is the reason this is just the beginning. US India cooperations have started since the Malabar exercises of 1992. So, since 1992 more than 30 years have gone by, and now the USA and India understand each other, there is a past. But Japan joins a little bit later, Australia joined a little bit later, and we need to spend a bit more time; we need to share more ties to understand each other. Hence the potential is big, but we need to materialize this potential. 

Debdoot Basu Ray is a Research Intern with the Usanas Foundation

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in the webinar belong to the speakers and are not reflective of Usanas Foundation.