Quad acquires Stronger Teeth as Australia joins Malabar Naval Exercises
Prof Rajaram Panda

The decision of India to invite Australia to join the annual Malabar naval exercises after a gap of 13 years is a substantial strategic move whose significance in the region’s strategic landscape shall hereafter acquire greater heft. This also means that the Quad grouping that includes Japan, the US, India and Australia shall be on the same page in region’s security matters. Critics in the member countries had seen the Quad grouping just as a mere talking shop. That impression shall now be dispelled.

India’s decision to embrace Australia and shedding its earlier hesitation in order not to annoy China stems from China’s growing belligerence in the region as well as the military stand-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. Need for a counter-balancing strategy was felt as China’s aggressive posture and muscle-flexing activities in a host of regional issues such as that in South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and border spat with India were required to be checked.

China has a long-term goal to be the world’s sole global power and aims to rewrite the global rules governing global matters on its own terms and that seems to be the primary aim of the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Besides its policy of economic domination strategized by its much-touted Belt and Road Initiative and investing huge capital in poorer countries and then creating a debt traps, China has emerged as a country whose motivations are suspect. Barring its all-weather friend North Korea and Pakistan, it has no real friends. This, it wants to overcome by optimising its enormous wealth acquired over decades by authoritarian methods and by using its enormous military arsenal and by intimidation.

Australia joining the Malabar naval exercise, scheduled in November 2020 in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea shall bring together the navies of India, Japan, Australia and the US would be a strong deterrent for China. In 2018, the exercise took place off the coast of Guam in the Philippine Sea and in 2019 off the coast of Japan. In 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had mocked the Quad grouping as sea foam in figurative terms. He shall now have to bite his words that the sea foam has now started rising.

There has been considerable debate in India over past five decades that India continued to misread China and paid the price in 1962. India’s past policies towards China have been criticised as flawed. The Modi government is now correcting that historical wrong. While India adopted its policies keeping in mind China’s sensitivities in expectation that China would reciprocate and respect India’s interests but that did not change Beijing’s policies of assertiveness and aggressive posture, which is why what India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar described it as a “critical security challenge”. Xi’s belligerent attitude stems from the Chinese system of hierarchy where power and strength are seen as the manifestation of a nation’s identity wherein the weaker nations are viewed either as pawns or in poorer light. In the modern world, such an attitude is just not acceptable.

This is where the Quad and Australia joining the Malabar naval exercise emerge as a significant factor in the ongoing power play. What is this Malabar about? This was a bilateral naval exercise involving the US and India and became trilateral after Japan became a permanent partner in 2015. There have been non-permanent participants such as Australia and Singapore too when they participated in 2007 only but not thereafter. The annual Malabar series began in 1992 and includes diverse activities, ranging from fighter combat operations from aircraft carriers through Maritime Interdiction Operations Exercises.

In view of the changing in geostrategic situations in the region, India felt that seeking greater cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, it was logical for Australia to join the Malabar exercises. The announcement coming weeks after the Quad countries’ Foreign Ministers meeting in person in Tokyo means that all the four Quad members share common viewpoints on regional security issues. China has been intimidating others in violation of global rules and thus it has become a priority for Quad members to cooperate for peace and stability in the region.

According to the release of India’s Defence Ministry, the exercise will be ‘non-contact-at-sea’ and will “strengthen the coordination between the Navies of the participating countries”. It further clarified that the engagement by the four countries is “to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain”. Adding further, it said the four participating nations “collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules based international order”. It is a different matter that this development raised eyebrows in Beijing that sees coming together of Quad countries suspiciously.

Additionally, the Indian Navy has been carrying out joint exercises with Quad countries at the bilateral level to improve interoperability. For instance, Indian Navy conducted a three-day bilateral maritime exercise with Japan in the north Arabian Sea from September 26, 2020 to September 28. It was the fourth edition of the India-Japan Maritime bilateral exercise JIMEX, which is conducted biennially. The Australian Navy and the Indian Navy carried out a passage exercise in the East Indian Ocean Region on September 23 and 24. The exercise involved the participation of HMAS Hobart from the Australian side and Indian naval ships Sahyadri and Karmuk. In addition, an Indian maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters from both sides carried out coordinated exercises. Earlier, Indian Navy units undertook Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with units of the US Nimitz Carrier Strike Group as they transited through the Indian Ocean region on July 20.

Australia too has welcomed the invitation to participate in the Malabar. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that its participation will “bolster the ability of India, Australia, Japan and the United States to work together to uphold peace and stability across the (our) region”. Echoing Payne’s remarks, Australia’s Defence Minister Linda Reynolds observed, “high-end military exercises like Malabar are key to enhancing Australia’s maritime capabilities, building interoperability with (close) partners, and demonstrating (our) collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific”. This reaction demonstrated that the four Quad members share “deep trust” and “will” to work together on common security interests.

Over the years, Malabar exercises have assumed robustness by expanding its scope commensurate with the evolving geopolitical challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. India has remained pro-active and signed three of the four foundational agreements with the US and increased defence procurements, thereby enabling interoperability. Japan and the US were already in agreement for Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar but India was a bit wary because of China’s sensitivities. That inhibition is now gone after the standoffs in Ladakh. The synergy that the four share in the maritime domain can be seen from the host of agreements each has entered with each other. In his last major foreign policy decision after announcing his decision to demit office as Japan’s Prime Minister but before handing over power to his successor Yoshihide Suga in September, Abe and Modi in a virtual summit meeting signed a very important military logistics agreement. India has similar maritime information sharing agreement for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) with Australia. A similar agreement is under discussion with the US.

India and the US are stepping up efforts to conclude the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) ahead of the Indo-US 2+2 ministerial meeting on 26-27 October where the defence and foreign ministers of the two countries shall be meeting. This will be the third dialogue that will cover all bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interests. The first two ministerial dialogues were held in September 2018 and in Washington in 2019.

The key military pact, BECA, if signed, will allow India to use US geospatial intelligence and enhance accuracy of automated systems and weapons like missiles and armed drones. Both the US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister urged for the early conclusion of such an agreement during their talks in February. The geospatial specifics under the troika of pacts –COMCASA and LEMOA and BECA – shall help enhance the accuracy of Indian missiles, and will be the key to plans for armed drones, thereby facilitating greater military cooperation between the four QUAD member nations.

In September 2018, after the first 2+2 dialogue between the two countries, then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met with visiting US counterparts Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis and had signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). This paved the way for transfer of communication security equipment from the US to India to facilitate “interoperability” between their forces and potentially with other militaries that use US-origin systems for secured data links. In August 2016, India and the US had also signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which allows the military of each country to replenish from the other’s bases.

With such institutional back-ups and host of agreements between the four Quad members at bilateral levels, the Malabar now would showcase the deep mutual trust that the four share to work together on common security interests and bolster the ability of each to counter collectively to secure regional peace and security, in particular in the maritime domain. The inclusion of Australia in Malabar exercise is a major upgrade for Quad grouping as the partners hold common viewpoints to reinforce a rules-based, free and open international order through cooperation.

China is best advised that it is time to shed its arrogance and aggressive intents and respect the spirit of rules-based global order and seek congruence of shared interests so that the existing equilibrium is not unnecessarily disturbed. Instead, China is just doing the opposite by warning the four Quad members as of “forming exclusive cliques” and “targeting third parties or undermining third parties’ interests” and called for “open, inclusive and transparent” cooperation that is “conducive to mutual understanding and trust between regional countries”. Wang Yi dismissed Pompeo’s plans to form a coalition as “nonsense”.

There are two ways to deal with China since one does not see any change in China’s attitude. Each of the four Quad members might choose independent strategy to deal with China and with identical policies so long as they collectively work towards the same goals and understand each other’s objectives and tactics. But institutional cooperation provide added teeth to the strategy and Quad offers partner nations opportunity to maximise their collective strength for the achieving the larger goal of securing regional peace and stability. That commitment is to secure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and Quad is just the vital mechanism to work towards that end.

The Quad members need not be unnecessarily perturbed by China’s suspicion of the Malabar naval exercises by all the four Quad member states so long as their larger goal is for defending and securing regional interests as against China’s intention to protect its own individual interests without any concern if its actions are adversely impacting another country’s interest. Beijing perceives the Malabar annual exercises are an effort to contain its influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The US is keen to address the Indo-Pacific security issues by sculpting a security architecture that can address China’s growing assertiveness in the strategic Indo-Pacific region. It is to be seen if the new dimension of the Quad shall meet such aspirations. The role of Malabar naval exercises involving all Quad members is significant from that perspective.

A new dimension added recently to the Quad formation is its possible expansion and co-opting other middle power nations that share common viewpoints with the Quad member states. South Korea and Vietnam are being talked about this possibility. But the Quad at the present is “somewhat undefined entity in and of itself” as mentioned by the US Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun in a recent India-US Forum meeting in New Delhi but clarified that Quad is a partnership driven by shared interests and not binding obligations and not intended to be an exclusive grouping. He said that any country that seeks a free and open Indo-Pacific and is willing to take step to ensure that is welcome. This seems to be a clear signal that the role of Quad is not limited to the four at the present but likely to assume greater dimension in the coming months/years by co-opting other nations with similar viewpoints. China, watch out!

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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