Columna The Diplomat, 27.08.2021 Dr. Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan, directora (CSST / Observer Research Foundation)
The Quad countries — Australia, Japan, India, and the United States — are conducting the next edition of the Malabar naval exercises off the coast of Guam from August 26-29. This is the second edition of the Malabar exercise in a row to include Australia. Given the increasing hostility between China and the Quad countries, the grouping will likely mature and intensify their cooperation.
The Malabar naval exercises began back in 1992 between the Indian and U.S. navies in the Indian Ocean. Since 2015, Japan has been a permanent partner in the exercise. The 2020 edition of the Malabar exercise, which included Australia, was held in two phases in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.
Although initially reluctant, India now appears very enthusiastic about the Quad. In a press release, the Indian Ministry of Defense said that:
“MALABAR-21 would witness high-tempo exercises conducted between [sic] Destroyers’, Frigates, Corvettes, Submarines, Helicopters and Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft of the participating navies. Complex surface, sub-surface and air operations including Live Weapon Firing Drills, Anti-Surface, Anti-Air and Anti-Submarine Warfare Drills, Joint Manoeuvres and Tactical exercises will be conducted during the exercise.”
The Indian Navy spokesperson commented that the conduct of the naval exercise amid the COVID-19 pandemic is a “testimony of synergy” among the four Quad countries that will:
“provide an opportunity for common minded navies to enhance inter-operability, gain from best practices and develop a common understanding of procedures for maritime security operations.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Indian Minister of State for Defense Shripad Naik, while responding to a question in the Indian Parliament, said that the Malabar naval exercises “highlight the convergence of views among the participating countries on maritime issues and their shared commitment to an open, inclusive Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order.” Given the convergence of strategic interests and the shared security threat perception among these countries, there has been an intensification of political and security dialogues and the exercises undertaken by the four countries have “enhanced synergy, interoperability and coordination between the four country navies.”
Indian frigate INS Shivalik and corvette INS Kadmatt are taking part in the Malabar exercise. Furthering India’s Act East Policy, the two ships were already in the region as part of their scheduled deployment to Southeast Asia from August 9 onward. Prior to their arrival in Guam for the Malabar 21 exercise, the two ships were in Brunei for an annual exercise and professional interactions with the Royal Brunei Navy.
The two ships participating in the Malabar 21 exercise are examples of the recently designed and built indigenous multi-role Guided Missile Stealth Frigate and Anti-Submarine Corvette. They are part of India’s Eastern Fleet based in Visakhapatnam, in southern India, under the Eastern Naval Command.
During the exercise, Indian Vice Admiral Ajendra Bahadur Singh, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Naval Command, will engage in operational discussions with U.S. Rear Admiral Leonard C. “Butch” Dollaga, Commander CTF-74, with a focus “on developing an action plan and coordinated operations in the maritime domain.” Additionally, India’s Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet, Rear Admiral Tarun Sobti, would be embarked onboard INS Shivalik during the Sea Phase of the exercise, which began on August 26.
According to media reports, citing the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the U.S. Navy has sent three warships including destroyers, P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, and special forces. The Japanese Navy is reported to be sending three surface combatants, a submarine mine-layer, maritime reconnaissance aircraft, ASW helicopters, and special forces. The Australian Navy will send one ship, an ASW helicopter, and special forces.
China has looked at the growing Quad engagements, and the Malabar exercises in particular, with increasing concern. Beijing has called them the Quad’s efforts at “containing” China’s growing global profile and footprint. Commenting on the Malabar exercises, an op-ed in the Global Times termed the increasing interactions among the Quad countries through Malabar and other engagements as an indicator of the “US anxiety about China.” China has also stepped up its naval exercises. According to Chinese Maritime Safety Administration, China’s military just concluded a live ammunition training near Guangdong in the South China Sea and off the northeast coast near Liaoning in the Yellow Sea and Bohai Strait. The exercises appear to be conducted with the goal of sending a message of force and strength to the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific partners.
The Quad countries are engaged in ever increasing number of political dialogues and security consultations. The fact that Australia has become a “regular” partner in the Malabar series of exercises is an indication of India’s hardening position as it pertains to China. Earlier, despite the 2017 Doklam conflict, India was still not certain whether it should invite Australia to be part of the Malabar exercises. Australia was finally invited in 2020, after a gap of 13 years, to join the Malabar exercise. Given that China has been unwilling to budge in resolving the Ladakh confrontations amicably and disengage forces, India appears to have decided to pursue a harder line with Beijing.
This April, the Quad plus France engaged in the La Pérouse exercise in the Bay of Bengal, reflecting the growing strategic convergence among a number of Quad-plus countries in ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific that is respectful of a rules-based order. There is now a greater likelihood than before that the Quad will grow stronger.