The potential for a quadrilateral Exercise Malabar has risen fast in the post-Covid-19 order. This comes on the back of the upgrade of the India-Australia strategic partnership to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” at the June 4 virtual summit between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison. Australian High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell ignited hopes of an expanded Malabar in the near future by saying prior to the summit that “Canberra would be delighted to participate in Malabar,” subject to India’s invitation and acceptance from the United States and Japan.

Australia’s return to the Malabar naval exercises would strengthen not only the maritime perspectives shared by India and Australia but also their cooperative vision in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It would strengthen their biennial naval exercise, AUSINDEX, which began in 2015, and provide impetus to India’s multilateral naval exercise MILAN which was to see the participation of over 30 friendly navies in 2020, including Australia. At the recent virtual summit, India and Australia inked an arrangement concerning Mutual Logistics Support and released the India-Australia ‘Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.’ This furthers the chance for Australian participation in Malabar and will help develop a strategic context for more serious maritime cooperation.

India’s Act East Policy, which recognizes the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), serves as the “cornerstone” of its Indo-Pacific engagements. In 2015, India rationalized its maritime policies into a more action-oriented mechanism and released the “Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy.” Similarly, at the 2016 Pacific Islands Forum, Australia hinted at an action-driven “step-change” in its engagement process with the region, which culminated in the release of one of its “highest policy priorities,” the Pacific Step-up. For both Australia and India, Malabar and even the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) are extensions of these national policies.

The United States and India have held annual naval exercises under the Malabar framework since 1992. In April 2007, the Malabar exercise was held in the Western Pacific Ocean along with Japan for the first time. In September 2007, Singapore and Australia were also included in the “pentagonal event, Exercise Malabar 2007-2.” After China’s strong reaction to the exercise, Australia and Singapore, both reliant on Beijing economically, moved away from the grouping. Japan, however, continued to participate whenever the exercise was held in the Pacific Ocean. In 2015, realizing its security benefits, Japan officially joined the bilateral exercise grouping, turning it into a formal tripartite naval exercise despite Chinese reactions.

Following China’s objection to the 2007 Malabar exercise, India, Japan, and the United States continued to exclude Australia from the grouping. This was a strategic choice that stemmed from not wanting to give Malabar a Quad outlook —  if Australia were to rejoin, the exercises would involve all four Quad nations and be perceived as a maritime alliance against China.

In the years since, however, the rationale for a quadrilateral Malabar has increasingly gained cognizance as appeasing China has largely been counter-productive. China has been unforgiving in pushing its aggressive anti-Indo-Pacific strategy, continuing naval exercises even during the Covid-19 pandemic. China’s outreach across the Indian Ocean with Africa is a cause of major alarm, especially for India and Japan, which wish to form a “continental connect” between Africa and Asia via their “Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa Region.” The true potential of the revived Quad dialogue can only be reached if active steps are taken to strengthen the same, including military operations.

India’s ties with China are undergoing a significant change following the Galwan border incident. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has stated that “unprecedented development will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship,” and this will imply India distancing away from its strong “China Connect” diplomacy in the coming years. In such a scenario, India will look to bolster its security and defense mechanisms by synergizing ties with countries that have a converging Indo-Pacific outlook, namely its Quad partners. India will participate and promote now more intently in the Quad framework without worrying about China’s opposition.

China, meanwhile, has threatened Australia with trade bans in retaliation for demanding an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. But Australia has refused to be “intimidated” by its largest trading partner. This change in Australia’s China policy has been an evolving phenomenon: the desire to be included in the Malabar exercise is an offshoot of its recognition of the China threat in the Indo-Pacific. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan indicates to a new maritime outlook of Australia to protect its interest in Indo-Pacific. Involving Australia, a two-ocean maritime power with competence in the South Pacific, will strengthen the interoperability of the Quad navies and allow maritime domain awareness to emerge as a major point of cooperation between India and Australia. Through Malabar, all four partners together can balance out an increasingly aggressive China in the Indo-Pacific, including in the South and East China Seas. A break away from their appeasement policies vis-à-vis China is hence increasingly visible in the India-Australia emerging partnership.

Australia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea or the East China Sea, but, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, opposes Chinese adventurism in the disputed areas. And although Canberra does not have an official stance on the overlapping claims in these waters, it is nevertheless a key stakeholder in both seas. The South China Sea is a vital commercial transit hub for Australian trade — much of which is to and from China. Australia’s 2016 Defense White Paper rued the lack of a “rules-based” order in the South China Sea, which it claimed was threatening its security and long-term interests. In the East China Sea, too, Australia is concerned about protecting the major sea lines of communication for its economic security. Moreover, there is also a strategic impact on Australia because of the Australia-New Zealand-United States treaty, which in theory could pull Australia into the thick of a conflict in the East China Sea.

Further, with the IOR fast becoming one of the most crucial geopolitical and economic areas of the world, there has been a rise in security concerns. Therefore, IOR nations are now focusing on “strengthening the Blue Economy,” in an attempt to pursue sustainable economic, political, and security development. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is the leading multilateral regional forum. India and Australia are member states while Japan and the United States are dialogue partners. Thus, including Australia in Malabar will boost not only the prospects of the Quad but also the IORA by strengthening regional maritime security arrangement and enhancing Blue Economy development.

The Blue Dot Network — a balancing effort to China’s Belt and Road Initiative that was jointly launched by the United States, Japan, and Australia — will synergize with IORA’s Blue Economy drive by providing rules-based infrastructural assistance to coastal and littoral IORA states. Australia’s inclusion in Malabar will also create a strategic synergy for India’s prospective involvement in the Blue Dot Network.

In brief, the inclusion of Australia in Malabar allows the Quad process to emerge as a coalition of structured maritime partnerships, strengthen threat assessment capabilities, and enhance the maritime roles and missions of the four naval powers —  Australia, Japan, India, and the United States. In other words, an expanded Malabar points to the emergence of a structured maritime coalition in the Indo-Pacific, amounting to an emergent defense maritime architecture vis-à-vis a revisionist China.

About Jagannath Panda

Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”.