The 2021 Malabar naval exercise marks the second consecutive year in which the navies of all the Quad countries are coming together. The annual war games have reached the milestone of 25 editions so far, in which the U.S., India, Japan and Australia have participated together thrice – in 2007, 2020 and 2021 respectively.
The 2021 edition of the annual Malabar exercise is currently underway off the coast of Guam, a U.S. island territory in the western Pacific Ocean. The four-day war games commenced on August 26 and will go on till August 29. Last year witnessed the navies of all the four Quad partners – the United States, Japan, Australia, and India – coming together after a gap of 13 years. This is the third time Australia is participating in the Malabar series of exercises, after registering its presence in the 2007 and the 2020 editions.
Exercise Malabar, which has reached its 25th edition, entails a complex set of naval drills that includes anti-surface, anti-air, and anti-submarine warfare with different kinds of warships, submarines and aircraft displaying their might in the high seas. The four participating navies can benefit from each other’s experience and expertise. Even though now a quadrilateral exercise, it has its actual beginnings as a bilateral U.S.-India annual naval drill in 1992, with the Indian Ocean as its primary theatre. This was a time when Indian foreign policy was undergoing radical shifts in its outlook, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union an year before.
The 1990s saw two more editions of Exercise Malabar. After a brief stall following India’s nuclear tests in 1998, the exercise was resumed in 2002 and ever since then it has been conducted annually. As Beijing’s military ambitions began to unveil subtly in the 2000s, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mooted the idea of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad, involving India, Japan, U.S. and Australia for the first time in 2007. That year also saw Exercise Malabar expanding to include the participation of Japan, Australia and Singapore, as well, along with India and the U.S.
But, Exercise Malabar was forced to revert back to its earlier form in the following year with Australia withdrawing from the war games, owing to a growing Chinese pressure and the policy of Kevin Rudd, the Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister of Australia who was keen on building closer ties with China, a rising Asian economic giant then, a mistake that Australian leadership would realise soon in the later years and would correct in 2017. However, Japan continued to participate in the annual drills alternately and became a permanent partner in 2015, giving the exercise a trilateral face.
Two years later, the Quad was resurrected as a working-level diplomatic initiative in 2017 during the ASEAN and related summits held in Manila, Philippines, that year. Quad 2.0 coincided with a convergence of interests and perceptions on China among the four partners with better clarity. However, Australia returned back to Exercise Malabar three years later only, in 2020, at its 24th edition, which was held off India’s coast, in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.
Malabar 2021 is the silver jubilee edition of the exercise. As China’s acts of aggression in various sections of the Indo-Pacific increases with time, ranging from the Himalayas to the South and East China Seas, the grouping has redefined its purpose. The Quad has now sharpened its security edge with Exercise Malabar, wherein military interoperability is being given a top priority, in such a way that the naval forces observe and train with each other, helping them to respond swiftly to any crisis in any geostrategic environment, particularly in the seas.
However, the Quad should not be mistaken as a formal collective security alliance like the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) or the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), in which an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all and retaliatory responses executed based on a formal treaty that is signed and agreed upon. This is not the case with regard to the Quad, in which there are no binding treaties involved, so do security commitments. There is only convergence of interests among like-minded countries and the collective will to act together.
Even though, Quad partners Japan and Australia are formal allies of the U.S., India still maintain a highly independent foreign policy and has not shown interest in the alliance system under the shadow of a dominant superpower, owing to its non-aligned past. In fact, India is the only Quad partner that is not a U.S. ally and the only country that truly gives meaning for the grouping’s existence, because, the treaty alliance between the other three Quad partners is already in place. For India, the Quad opens up another set of possibilities for co-operation outside an alliance system at various levels, with defence having a key role to play, inter alia.
Moreover, there is no doubt that the rise of China in a manner disrupting the dynamics of existing balance of power has been a persuasive factor in the re-emergence of the Quad and the expansion of Exercise Malabar over the years. With a shared vision for a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”, the Quad is evolving, especially as Beijing keeps projecting its power in its neighbourhood and the broader region.
In March, this year, the leaders of all the four Quad partners have conducted a virtual summit, raising the grouping’s bar to a summit level from its previous ministerial level. A joint statement was also issued thereafter, detailing “the spirit of the Quad”. The Biden administration, which assumed office in January this year, has proposed an in-person Quad summit for this year, as well. However, the Quad in its new avatar after 2017 had seen its evolution mostly under the previous Trump administration, which took an openly confrontational approach towards China.
Beijing views the Quad as a U.S.-led attempt to contain its rise and calls it an “Asian NATO”. China seems to be nervous about the ongoing Malabar Exercise, close to its backyard, and has stepped up its own naval drills in the southern and eastern coasts off its mainland, which can be viewed as a political message to the United States and the Quad.
In the past few weeks and months, various Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, France and the U.K. have also been keen in working closer with individual Quad countries to uphold a rules-based international order and freedom of navigation in the broader Indo-Pacific. In this geopolitical scenario, the relevance of the Quad and Exercise Malabar is poised to grow even bigger in the coming years, so do the bilateral partnerships among the like-minded regional countries.