International Booster- QUAD and Malabar 2020

QUAD and Malabar 2020

The first phase of the Malabar naval exercises is currently underway off the coast of Vishakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal and there has been much enthusiasm and anticipation around it this year. The excitement is largely because for the first time the Malabar Exercise will see the participation of India, the US and Japan along with (after thirteen years) Australia – a grouping which is also informally identified as the Quad. Since the revival of the Quad project in 2017, a decade after it came into existence, there has been a considerable degree of promise and expectation from the grouping among those who subscribe to the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific which includes littorals of the Indo-Pacific as well as countries external to the region.

The Malabar exercise began as an annual bilateral naval exercise in 1992 between India and the US and went on to include Japan in 2015. Taking place amid the ongoing global pandemic, the 2020 edition of the exercise will be a non-contact one and will, therefore, be solely off-shore and comprise anti-submarine, anti-surface and anti-air warfare operations, weapons firing, seamanship manoeuvres and cross deck landings.

The 2020 instalment

The exercise, now in its 24th instalment is set to be carried out in two phases with Phase-I being conducted in the Bay of Bengal and Phase-II in the Arabian Sea in mid-November. Phase-I will see the participation of Indian Navy units INS Ranvijay, multi-role frigate INS Shivalik, off-shore patrol vessel INS Sukanya, fleet tanker INS Shakti and submarine INS Sindhuraj with USN Ship USS John S McCain (a guided-missile destroyer), JMSDF Ship JS Onami (destroyer) with an integral SH-60 helicopter and RAN Ship HMAS Ballarat (long-range frigate) with an integral MH-60 helicopter. This phase, however, is noted as being less than impressive given that the assets deployed by Japan, Australia and the US constitute a less than credible line-up with past editions of the exercise having comprised of more sophisticated weapons and operations.

As four main democracies in the region, the Quad countries have been participating across different forums and stepping up bilateral, minilateral and multilateral levels of collaboration which are often focused mainly on defence cooperation, trade and information sharing. This year’s Malabar exercise should not be understood as a Quad military exercise, and, therefore, it is not surprising to see Australia take part. Naval exercises serve to augment interoperability, facilitate exchanges and enhance maritime capabilities. In the context of a generally tense geopolitical climate in the Indo-Pacific, the 2020 Malabar adds to a growing consensus regarding the preservation of secure seas and the existing rules-based order.

The journey towards a consolidation of this consensus has often been an ambiguous one marked by a struggle between acknowledging Beijing’s expansionism and infringements, and, on the other hand, being wary of taking a clear stance on this issue. Nonetheless, over the last number of years caution appears to have gradually given way to signalling towards a stronger intent together with the realisation (and urgent requirement) for actionable measures and more robust policies.

A broad mandate and Australia’s inclusion

Dubbed the Asian NATO, the Quad has a rocky past and has only recently developed a greater vigour through a more encouraging response from India and a more vocal Australia. The inclusion of Australia marks a shift in New Delhi’s position to steer clear of antagonising Beijing. While the mandate of the grouping remains quite broad, covering maritime security, connectivity counter-terrorism, resilient supply chains and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the rationale and driver for the Quad’s resurgence continue to stem from an increasingly assertive China. This in turn has led to greater efforts by ‘like-minded’ countries to consolidate across a range of platforms, together with a stronger focus on articulating shared interests.

However, for the Quad, it remains early days and unless this new momentum is sustained it will not only fail to find relevance but also serve to bolster interventionist forces. The Quad is also (still) in an informal grouping and, therefore, requires form and functionality in addition to consistent stewardship and clear direction (for it to become effective).

While China’s containment is, and will, continue to be the major driver, it is also imperative for the grouping to explore and cultivate other areas of cooperation to strengthen the scope and nature of the arrangement as envisaged by the four Quad countries. Understood from this perspective, the participation of Australia in this year’s Malabar exercise along with the three other participants elevates the geo strategic significance of the exercise and marks an additional sphere of engagement in the already many-tiered network of alliances that the Indo-Pacific has given rise to.

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