In 2007, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe noted in a landmark speech before the Indian Parliament titled “Confluence of the Two Seas” that “the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.”

The recent ending of Exercise Malabar 2020 marks the beginning of a whole new era of cooperation between India, the United States, Japan, and Australia in the maritime realm.

What has given added weight to this year’s edition of Malabar is the participation of Australia. Exercise Malabar began as bilateral exercises between India and the United States back in 1992 and was expanded to include Japan in 2015. Australia participated once before, in 2007, and has expressed its eagerness to return to Malabar for quite some time, but it was only this year that it was finally invited back.

A press release issued by India’s Press Information Bureau notes that “the exercise, being conducted as a ‘non-contact, at sea only’ exercise in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, will showcase the high-levels of synergy and coordination between the friendly navies, which is based on their shared values and commitment to an open, inclusive Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order.”

So, what does this mean for the region as a whole?

First, it means that the Malabar member countries have started shedding their reticence vis-à-vis China. This marks a big step forward in a direction not seen since 2007 when the exercises included India, Japan, the United States, Australia, and Singapore (for the first and only time). In fact, there were two editions of the Malabar during that year. But in the years that followed, the participant countries seemed rattled by Beijing’s protestations and refrained from repeating such a grouping.

Second, it suggests that the Sino-Indian border clashes have led to a change in India’s overall approach toward China as a geostrategic competitor. India’s ties with China have gone through a rough phase this year with incursions by Chinese troops.  This has led to casualties on both sides, although China has refused to divulge the number on its side.

Third, it amplifies signals of support by the Malabar participants for freedom of the seas. The Indian Navy has a strong presence in the region and has been at the forefront of efforts to promote the freedom of the seas. Close cooperation among these four nations also dovetails with Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, which was first espoused under the Abe administration. Japan’s focus on the Indo-Pacific will continue as seen in the statements made by new prime minister Yoshihide Suga during his recent visits to Vietnam and Indonesia.

Unifying Factors

Several factors are bringing Australia, India, Japan, and the United States closer together.

First, they share a set of common interests in the Indo-Pacific. This includes freedom of navigation in the region, which is a major global economic artery.  It has been estimated that nearly 36 million barrels of oil—which is close to 40 percent of the world’s oil supply and 64 percent of oil trade—pass through the Indian Ocean every single day.

Second, the fear that in the future, the United States may not be able to provide the kind of security guarantees it has in the past has created a desire for more robust multilateral security relationships. While it is anticipated that the United States will reinvest in its alliances and partnerships under a Joe Biden administration, it remains a deeply divided nation and there is uncertainty in the region over the long-term arc of U.S. foreign policy.

Third, all of the Malabar participants have had run-ins with China in the recent past. In the case of Japan, it has been China’s aggressive actions around the Senkaku Islands (which are claimed as the Diaoyu Islands by China). For India it has been Chinese incursions in its border region. Australia’s participation in Malabar may be considered more of a leap of faith, given its close ties with China, especially in the economic domain. But those ties began unraveling earlier this year amid a sharp downturn in bilateral relations.

Fourth, India’s defense ties with the United States are growing quickly. India is buying a huge array of U.S.-made military hardware, with U.S. defense sales to India skyrocketing to more than $20 billion. Australia and Japan are also expanding their defense ties with India. And all three are heartened that India has set up a tri-services command in the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar islands just north of the Malacca Strait. The recent landing of a U.S. P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft in the Andamans for the first time suggests that this has opened new avenues for maritime security cooperation.

Challenges

However, there are a quite a few challenges as well and it is not going to be an easy path ahead.

First, with the election of Joe Biden as president, it remains to be seen what kind of an approach the United States will take towards China.  While the Trump Administration took a very hardline approach toward Beijing, the new administration might not walk down the same path.

Second, it is unclear what happens if relations between China and one or more of the Malabar participants turns even worse. Will the other participants rally in support,  or will they go their own way?

The Road Ahead

Exercises like Malabar are very important to tackle both traditional and non-traditional security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. In the past, issues like piracy and civil war have posed new challenges for policymakers in the region. This year’s edition of the Malabar exercises must also be seen against the backdrop of the second meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue foreign ministers in Tokyo in early October.

The maritime realm will be key as these countries seek to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region.  Beijing’s coercive actions have been on full display when it comes to countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, suggesting a concerted Chinese strategy. Meanwhile, as part of its so-called “String of Pearls”, Beijing has been developing a series of ports in countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

Malabar 2020 marks the coming of age of maritime collaboration between democratic actors in the Indo-Pacific.  There is no doubt that Malabar 2020 will lay down the template for future cooperation in the Indo-Pacific between them.

About Rupakjyoti Borah

Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. His forthcoming book is titled The Strategic Relations between India, the United States and Japan in the Indo-Pacific: When Three is Not a Crowd. He has also been a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge, the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), Japan and the Australian National University. Twitter: @rupakj