In a rebuff to Beijing, albeit one that was on the cards as Chinese assertiveness grows, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on Monday that Australia will participate in the naval exercise ‘Exercise Malabar’, which is scheduled for November.
“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,” stated the MoD.
In a simultaneous announcement from Canberra, Australia’s MoD stated: “Following an invitation from India, Australia will participate in Exercise Malabar 2020. The exercise will bring together four key regional defence partners: India, the US, Japan and Australia.”
The high-profile naval exercise was hosted by the US in 2018, off Guam in the Philippine Sea; and by Japan in 2019 off its own coast. “[Malabar 2020] is expected to be held in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea later this year,” stated the MoD.
Malabar usually sees a great deal of cross-attachment, with each navy hosting on board their warships personnel from other participating navies. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, will not allow that this time. “This year, the exercise has been planned on a ‘non-contact at sea’ format,” announced the MoD.
The Malabar joint naval exercises began in 1992 as a bilateral training and familiarisation initiative between the US and Indian navies. In 2015, Japan was invited to join, making it a trilateral exercise.
Australia has expressed keenness to join Malabar for some years. This year, given Australia’s full participation, Malabar 2020 will feature all four members of the Quadrilateral (Quad) grouping.
This is unlikely to be welcomed in Beijing. China has always opposed Malabar’s expansion, and the link between Malabar and the Quad. The latter, while not a military grouping, has been often pitched as a “Concert of Democracies” counterpoised to authoritarian China.
China’s opposition to Malabar was evident in 2007, when all four Quad members, as well as Singapore, sent naval units to that year’s Exercise Malabar — so far, the highest number of participants. An irate Beijing sent a diplomatic demarche to all four Quad capitals, enquiring whom their navies were training to fight against.
The next year, Malabar 2008 became a victim of domestic politics when Australia elected Kevin Rudd as prime minister. The China-friendly leader promptly ended further quadrilateral engagement.
Indian policymakers are not unanimous about expanding Malabar to include all four Quad members. India is the only member that does not have a defence treaty with the US. If China retaliates militarily, New Delhi may end up isolated.
Furthermore, India is the only one that has a land boundary with China, and a hotly contested one at that.
Indian officials, such as PS Raghavan, who heads the National Security Advisory Board, regard the Quad as “the most high-profile plurilateral dialogue” that India participates in.
“It is important to recognise what the Quad is and what it is not. The Quad is not a strategy; it is a search for a strategy, based on some shared interests. It is not a closed club or a starting point of an arc of democracy encircling China. Even less is it an alliance. The broad objectives of its participants are political equilibrium and a sustainable security architecture,” Raghavan wrote last November.