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Editorial: Kangaroo Joins the ‘Quad’

Chennai, 28 Oct 2020: 

The Malabar naval exercise began in 1992 as a training event between the United States and India. Japan joined it in 2015, but Australia has not participated since 2007.

Australia will join three-way naval exercises involving the United States, Japan and India, in a move that could provoke concern from China, which has criticized similar joint drills in the past.

The exercise was conducted off the coast of Guam in the Philippine Sea in 2018 and off the coast of Japan in 2019.

This year’s drills are likely to be held in the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf, India’s defense ministry says. Dates have not yet been confirmed.

It will be the first time that the United States, India, Japan and Australia – the informal grouping known as the ‘Quad’ – have participated in a joint military exercise of this size.

The four democracies in the Indo-Pacific hope the exercise can act as a counterweight to Chinese military and political influence in the region.

India, which is locked in a military stand-off on the disputed land border with China, hopes the expansion of the exercise will contain what it sees as Beijing’s intrusion into its territory, analysts say.

This time around it will be the best of the best ships participate in the exercise and India, which last year sent two smaller warships, was likely to send a larger carrier this time as smaller distances are involved.

The United States already has the supercarriers Nimitz in the Gulf and Ronald Reagan in the Bay of Bengal, both possible participants in the drill.

Japan’s navy is likely to send one of its two ‘Izumo-class’ helicopter carriers, the largest in its fleet and which have been part of the exercise for several years. Australia could send one of its newest ships, such as the destroyer Hobart.

The Indian Ministry of Defence issued a release on the upcoming trilateral India-U.S.-Japan Malabar exercises, noting that this year’s iteration would include Australia

The decision to add Australia will make the upcoming iteration of Malabar the first exercise to include all four Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad,” states since the grouping’s reconvening in November 2017 after a decade-long hiatus.

The Royal Australian Navy last participated in Malabar 07-02 in September 2007; that iteration of the exercises also included a small Singaporean contingent. That exercise also coincided with the original convening of the Quad. The grouping was later disbanded after Chinese opposition.

Australia’s return to Malabar will no doubt be framed as growing evidence of the seriousness of the reconvened Quad. Canberra’s inclusion in the drills comes at a time of heightened tensions between China and the Quad states.

The Indian Ministry of Defence’s announcement on Malabar this week makes crystal clear that Canberra’s inclusion is meant to be read in the context of ongoing efforts by the Quad countries to “collectively support [a] free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.” “The participants of Exercise Malabar 2020 are engaging to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain,” the release added.

 

The expansion of Malabar is likely to further the integration of the Quad and reflects positive trends in India-Australia security cooperation. Arguably, the Canberra-New Delhi relationship has been the weakest of the Quad’s constituent bilateral relationships. That’s quickly changing as the two countries expand cooperation on defense policy planning and keep up high-level exchanges, including a “2+2” dialogue between their top foreign and defense officials set up in 2017.

Having started as bilateral U.S.-India naval exercise in 1992, Malabar was formally trilateralized in 2015 to include the participation of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force on a permanent basis. The decision to add Japan came seven years after India and Japan signed a 2008 joint declaration on security cooperation, reflecting growing convergence between New Delhi and Tokyo.

Australia’s return to Malabar underscores the Quad’s expanding agenda in its post-2017 incarnation and will no doubt be closely watched in China. This year’s Malabar will likely have the effect of raising expectations for the Quad going forward. For instance, Australia’s potential non-participation next year could be seen as a step back. For now, there’s no indication that Malabar may be formally quadrilateralized, but that would appear to be the next goal for the Quad’s proponents.

Either way, the fact of this year’s exercise should also increase the odds that the four navies conduct coordinated and joint activities elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific.

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