(Editor’s Note: Updated with Australian government’s reaction to the Exercise MALABAR invitation from paragraphs 10 to 14.)
New Delhi: The first thought that comes to mind when one hears Australia is joining the trilateral India–United States–Japan maritime exercise later this year: Is QUAD, conceived as a purely diplomatic network, going military?
India officially announced today that the MALABAR series of naval exercise will witness Australia joining it in the Indian Ocean later this year, to make it a four-way war game.
In accordance with global COVID-19 pandemic norms, this year’s exercise in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea would be a “non-contact-at-sea” effort.
This year’s quadrilateral maritime exercise will be a joint venture of all the four members of the QUAD and it provides the much-needed heft to the four-nation grouping. That is what makes the invitation to Australia interesting, in these democratic nations’ efforts for a free, safe and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.
This won’t be the first time Australia has joined the MALABAR exercise. It did so in 2007 too off Chennai in the Bay of Bengal. That was a five-nation naval exercise, also involving Singapore. And that had got the goat of China very much, leading to Communist political parties in India protesting the multilateral naval exercise.
The MALABAR series of naval exercises started in 1992 as a bilateral Indian Navy–US Navy exercise. Japan joined the naval exercise in 2015 permanently, making it a trilateral one. This year’s is the 24th edition of this exercise.
This annual exercise has been conducted off the coast of Guam in the Philippine Sea in 2018, off the coast Sasebo in Japan in 2019, and is expected to be held in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea later this year.
“As India seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, MALABAR 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy,” India’s Ministry of Defence said in a statement. It did not elaborate if this would make it a permanently quadrilateral naval exercise.
“The exercise will strengthen the coordination between the navies of the participating countries. The participants of Exercise MALABAR 2020 are engaging to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain. They collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules-based international order.”
The MALABAR exercise invite immediately received a positive response from Australia. Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne underlined that the announcement was another important step in Australia’s deepening relationship with India.
“This builds on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, to which Prime Minister (Scott) Morrison and Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi agreed on 4 June 2020, and which I progressed with my counterpart, Minister of External Affairs (Dr S.) Jaishankar, this month when we met in Tokyo. It will bolster the ability of India, Australia, Japan and the United States to work together to uphold peace and stability across our region.”
Payne’s compatriot and Minister of Defence Linda Reynolds said Exercise MALABAR showcased the deep trust between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests
“High-end military exercises like MALABAR are key to enhancing Australia’s maritime capabilities, building interoperability with our close partners, and demonstrating our collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” she said.
India and Australia had signed military logistics and defence science and technology agreements in June when Modi and Morrison had met virtually for a summit engagement that also resulted in the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two nations.
Jaishankar had participated in the Tokyo round of the QUAD ministers from Australia, Japan and the US on Oct. 6. There, he “collectively affirmed the importance of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”. The talks were hosted by the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi.
Jaishankar also committed “to upholding the rules-based international order, underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes.”
That message was cleared targeted at China, which has opened multiple conflict fronts with nations in Asia. With India, Communist China has launched a misadventure along the land borders in Ladakh.
Beijing has opened territorial disputes with the littorals in the South China Sea, where the world wants the international waters to remain part of the Global Commons, available to all to navigate.
“Our objective remains advancing the security and the economic interests of all countries having legitimate and vital interests in the region. It is a matter of satisfaction that the Indo-Pacific concept has gained increasingly wider acceptance,” Jaishankar had said then.
US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo had noted a the QUAD meeting that the Coronavirus that came Wuhan.
He said the crisis Coronavirus caused globally “was made infinitely worse by the Chinese Communist Party‘s coverup. The (CCP) regimes authoritarian nature led its leaders to lock up and silence the very brave Chinese citizens who were raising the alarm.”
Pompeo said then thanked Japan for its contribution to “make the QUAD a force for good in the region, and indeed the world.”
In the QUAD meeting, Australia’s Payne had noted then that the QUAD has a positive agenda. “It is a diplomatic network that assists us, as democracies to align ourselves in support of shared interests. We believe in a region governed by rules, not power.
“We believe in the fundamental importance of individual rights and in a region which – in which disputes are resolved according to international law. And we believe in regional security and recovery from COVID-19 that supports sovereign choices for the countries of the Indo-Pacific,” Payne had said.
The Oct. 6 Tokyo security conclave evoked a prickly response from the Chinese embassy in Japan. In its statement, the Chinese embassy warned the foursome not to form “exclusive cliques” that threaten the interests of third parties.
A week after the QUAD meeting in Tokyo, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi lashed out against the US design to create an “Indo-Pacific NATO”.
Russia was comfortable with India becoming a member of the QUAD, Deputy Chief of Mission in the Embassy of Russia in India Roman Babushkin had said in New Delhi on Sep. 8, but added that to be a regional body, QUAD must be more inclusive, open-minded and based on the principle of undivided security rather than a “mysterious rules based order”.