The Narendra Modi government has invited Australia for the annual Malabar naval exercises next month with the United States and Japan already confirming their participation. The move is expected to further lay the foundations for the eventual formalization of the QUAD grouping.
According to people directly familiar with the matter, the Malabar Exercises will be taking place in two stages in the Bay of Bengal; the 2019 exercise took place from September 26 to October 4 off the coast of Japan. The naval exercise featuring the QUAD partners will be held on November 3-6 and November 17-20. The shared objective of all four countries is free and open navigation in Indo-Pacific.
The decision to invite Australia was announced by the Modi Government on Monday.
“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,” the defence ministry announced in a statement.
This year, the exercise has been planned on a ‘non-contact – at sea’ format. The exercise will strengthen the coordination between the Navies of the participating countries.
The exercise comes after the QUAD Foreign Ministers meeting in Tokyo on October 6 and will follow shortly after the India-US two plus two dialogue on October 26-27 during which the geo-spatial agreement called BECA is expected to be signed by the two countries.
The last time Australia was invited as a non-permanent partner by India for Malabar in 2007, Beijing issued a demarche to India, US, Japan and Australia (Singapore was the other partner) seeking details of the exercise in the context of QUAD initiative, which at that time existed only on paper. Both India and Australia were defensive back then.
In the context of the emerging contours of QUAD, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had no hesitation in speaking his mind about the grouping at a Question and Answer session after his meeting with Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein in Kuala Lumpur on October 13. He termed the US Indo-Pacific strategy a “ big underlying risk” designed to stir up confrontation among different groups, and stoke geo-political competition with the Cold War mentality. The same minister called QUAD a “sea foam” in 2018 in Beijing. While Wang visited Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Singapore to secure Beijing’s interests in ASEAN from October 11 to 15, high ranking diplomat Yang Jiechi has been touring Myanmar and Sri Lanka to push the Chinese narrative on the Indo-Pacific and coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the four QUAD members have signaled their intent to move away from the trope of blocs to describe their shared values. Their objective, the countries maintain, is to secure sea lanes for open trade and not be constrained by an expansionist Chinese Navy. “QUAD is a security architecture between democratic countries, which have military logistics as well as communication agreement. It is not an emotion or a Cold War-type alliance,” said a senior diplomat.
According to a retired commander of Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command, who asked not to be named, the Malabar exercises are aimed at interoperability with an emphasis on humanitarian assistance, surface war manoeuvres, anti-submarines warfare, counter-terror operations, gunnery training and aerial surveillance.
Interestingly, the Malabar 2020 exercises will take place in the Bay of Bengal and near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, on important sea lanes.