Capstones: Geometry and Arithmetic in the Indo-Pacific

The American Legion Magazine, March 2023

Most Americans have heard about the “Quad”—a loose security partnership enfolding the U.S., India, Japan and Australia. But there’s also a “security diamond,” several security triangles, and numerous other Indo-Pacific groupings focused on containing China—and keeping Cold War II from turning hot. Call it the geometry of geopolitics.


More than a decade ago, then-PACOM commander Adm. Robert Willard pointed to a trio of “burgeoning trilateral relationships” as essential to Indo-Pacific security: the U.S.-South Korea-Japan partnership, U.S.-Japan-Australia partnership and U.S.-Japan-India partnership. These trilateral relationships, in turn, rest upon a triangle of overlapping mutual defense treaties binding the U.S. and Japan, U.S. and Australia, and U.S. and South Korea.

Today, various parts of these triangles are collaborating to promote regional security. New leadership in Seoul and Tokyo has opened the way for closer Japan-ROK cooperation. A U.S.-Japan-ROK flotilla conducted antisubmarine drills in late 2022. Australia and Japan have signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) enabling them to deploy forces to the other’s territory. Japan and Australia have joined the U.S. for annual exercises in Indonesia. Australia and India are holding bilateral military maneuvers. India’s fighter-jets are training in Japan’s skies. ROK military units are participating in Australia-led war games.

A fourth security triangle recently emerged: The Australia-U.K.-U.S. partnership (AUKUS) will deliver advances in hypersonic missiles, electronic-warfare systems, artificial intelligence and additional nuclear-powered submarines to protect Indo-Pacific waters.


The late Shinzo Abe of Japan is considered father of the Quad. Outlining in 2007 a “strategic global partnership” based on “fundamental values such as freedom, democracy and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests,” he envisioned Japan, India, Australia and the U.S. collaborating to lead “an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean.” Related, it was Abe who sketched the outlines of a “security diamond” enfolding these nations “to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the Western Pacific.”

Thanks to Abe’s vision, the U.S., Australia, Japan and India are turning the Quad into a bulwark against China.

The heads of government, defense ministers and foreign ministers of the Quad meet regularly to coordinate their Indo-Pacific policies. The Quad democracies are sharing satellite imagery, conducting large-scale naval maneuvers, deepening cooperation on supply-chain resilience, building secure 5G networks, partnering on cybersecurity, and expanding intelligence sharing.

America’s Quad partners are serious about deterrence.

Spurred by Beijing’s massive military buildup, Japan has increased defense spending annually for more than a decade running. Japan is upconverting its helicopter carriers into full-fledged aircraft carriers armed with F-35Bs, working closely with the U.S. on missile defense, and purchasing some 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles to enhance regional deterrence.

Australia is doubling its submarine fleet; hosting U.S. Marines, F-22s and B-52s; and integrating with its Quad and AUKUS partners. Australia recently signed a logistics-support agreement with India and has joined annual naval exercises involving the U.S., Japan and India.

India has increased defense spending by 49 percent the past decade. Japan and India are conducting joint naval exercises and resource-development projects. U.S.-India military cooperation—enfolding space, cyberspace, and air, sea and land exercises—has rapidly expanded since the early 2000s.  The U.S. and India are finalizing plans to utilize Indian ports to service U.S. warships. And in a signal to Beijing, U.S. Army units—airborne, special operations and National Guard—joined Indian troops in late 2022 for exercises just 62 miles from the India-PRC border.

Yet another four-sided coalition is the Chip4 Alliance—a U.S.-Japan-ROK-Taiwan effort to ensure a steady supply of semiconductor microchips.


There’s talk of turning the Quad into the Quint by adding South Korea, but that talk hasn’t yet turned into action. Even so, there are other five-sided security arrangements at work in the Indo-Pacific.

The Five Eyes—an intelligence-sharing alliance that includes the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada—has agreed to ban PRC telecom firms from their 5G networks.

For the first time ever, NATO in 2022 invited the leaders of Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand to participate in an alliance summit. In another first, NATO identified the PRC as a challenge, vowed to defend freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, and committed to work with “partners in the Indo-Pacific to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests.” This NATO+Four grouping is already bearing fruit: Japan and South Korea are participating in NATO’s Cyber Defense Center. Japan is partnering with Britain and Italy on a sixth-generation fighter-bomber. Canada and Germany have steamed warships to the region for exercises with Pacific partners. Britain dispatched the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific on its first deployment. France has deployed the carrier Charles de Gaulle throughout the region, joined the U.S. in enforcing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait.

To be sure, NATO’s focus is the North Atlantic area. Yet the U.S. and Canada quite literally bridge the trans-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific communities. France and the U.S. have territories sprinkled across the Indo-Pacific. Britain has sister-nations in the Indo-Pacific that identify King Charles as their monarch. And every NATO member relies on the free flow of goods through the vital waterways of the Indo-Pacific—which explains why Italy’s foreign minister says his country is moving “closer and closer to the Quad.”

Heptagons and Octagons

The G-7 industrialized democracies—U.S., Britain, Canada, Japan, France, Italy, Germany—are collaborating to respond to China’s “non-market policies and practices which undermine the fair and transparent operation of the global economy” and have called on Beijing to respect “a free and open Indo-Pacific…the rules-based international system…[and] peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

There’s support in Congress to add Japan, South Korea, India and perhaps others to the Five Eyes—transforming it into a coalition of eight or more.


ASEAN—a partnership of 10 Southeast Asian countries—warns that Beijing’s illegal island-building efforts “may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea” and supports “freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above, the South China Sea.” ASEAN includes U.S. treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines.

Supersized Polygons

The nascent 12-member Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF)—enfolding the Quad and most of ASEAN—represents a total GDP of some $50 trillion. But containing the Beijing behemoth is going to require even more than that.

The U.S. has a shrinking defense budget (as a share of federal outlays), a billion fewer people than China, and a smaller Navy than China. Grasping these trends, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen envisioned “a 1,000-ship navy…made up of the best capabilities of all freedom-loving navies.” In a sense, this navy of navies is already at work in the combined seapower of NATO, the Quad, ASEAN, IPEF and AUKUS—a supersized polygon representing dozens of nations and more than 1,000 warships.

As Gen. Kyle Ellison, vice-chief at the Office of Naval Research, explains, “Part of our ability to deter is making it not about one versus one, but one versus two, or one versus three, or one versus four”—or one versus 10, 12, 36 or more.


Those numbers remind us that deterring the PRC will require America and its allies to master arithmetic as well as geometry.

Critics of the U.S. defense budget—$858 billion projected for FY23—argue that it’s a waste, that China spends a fraction of what America spends on defense, that our allies are free-riders.

If the 20th century taught Americans anything, it’s that is investing in defense is never a waste—and shortchanging defense never ends well.

  • In the eight years before entering World War I, the U.S. devoted an average of 0.7 percent of GDP to defense. During the war, the U.S. spent an average of 16.1 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 116,516 military personnel.
  • In the decade before entering World War II, the U.S. spent an average of 1.1 percent of GDP on defense. During the war, the U.S. spent an average of 27 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 405,399 military personnel.
  • During Cold War I, by contrast, Americans invested an average of 7 percent of GDP on defense. Those investments didn’t end all wars, but they did deter Moscow and prevent World War III.

As for comparisons to China, the reality is that China hides its defense spending in non-defense programs, invests little on personnel relative to the U.S., steals much of the technology the U.S. spend billions developing, and focuses its mushrooming military budget on one geographic region.

At $858 billion, the defense budget represents a lot of money, but it’s just 3.1 percent of GDP—far below the average during Cold War I. What matters when crafting defense budgets isn’t raw-dollar amounts, but rather threats and percentages. With China building up and pushing out, the threats are increasing—and so must the percentage of GDP devoted to deterring those threats.

The consequences of shortchanging defense are already on display: The Army is undersized, overstretched and suddenly—though not surprisingly for some of us—focused on a new/old threat along NATO’s eastern front. Just 12 percent of the Air Force bomber fleet has the stealth capabilities needed to penetrate PRC defenses. The Navy has 298 active ships; it needs more than 500.


That’s the bad news. The good news is that America isn’t alone, which brings us back to the contributions of allies and partners.

Just as the island democracy of Britain was America’s bridgehead to the main theater of Cold War I, the island democracy of Japan is America’s bridgehead to the main theater of Cold War II. Tokyo is almost-doubling defense spending and is on track to become the world’s third-highest defense-spending power. Japan vows to “closely cooperate” with the Pentagon in the event of a PRC attack on Taiwan; has stood up island-defense units; and is providing arms and training to Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Australia is increasing defense spending 40 percent this decade; expanding its combat force by a third; and fielding new submarines, anti-ship missiles, anti-submarine systems, cyber-defenses and F-35s.

South Korea is increasing defense spending by 7.1 percent annually, boosting its F-35 fleet, building an aircraft carrier and fortifying its missile defenses.

India just commissioned its second aircraft carrier, has boosted its defense budget 10 percent for the coming year and boasts the world’s third-largest defense budget.

NATO nations are pouring huge amounts of fresh resources into defense. The fact that most of these resources will be devoted to deterring Russia should help the U.S. invest more into deterring China. Moreover, key power-projecting NATO members are committed to the Indo-Pacific: Britain is permanently stationing warships in the region. Japan and Britain have signed an RAA.” France has 7,000 troops, 20 warships and dozens of warplanes based in the Indo-Pacific.

Add it all up, and the combined military assets and outlays of America and its NATO, Quad, AUKUS, IPEF and ASEAN partners can outpace China. In fact, the nations in these groupings spend $1.1 trillion more on defense than Beijing. However, if these nations want to prevent Taiwan from going the way of Hong Kong and Crimea, if they want to keep the South China Sea open, if they want to avoid a replay of 1914, they must make sustained investments in deterrent military strength. They must collaborate in developing a division of labor. And they must leverage their advantages and capabilities into powerful synergies.


This new geopolitical geometry is necessary because Cold War II differs from Cold War I: Although this century’s struggle between tyranny and freedom is following the broad contours of last century’s, Cold War II is characterized by a different kind of enemy (a plugged-in PRC rather than a walled-off USSR), different perceptions of the enemy (the PRC plays the influence game better than the USSR), a different primary theater of operations (the vast, open waters of the Indo-Pacific rather than the cramped, crowded lands of Europe).

Ensuring that the 21st century isn’t made in China—and keeping the Indo-Pacific, well, pacific—will depend not on an all-for-one fortress like NATO, but rather on a puzzle-piece network of interlocking triangles, quads and polygons.

Alan W. Dowd serves as director of the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.

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