The Australian navy joined Indian, Japanese and American warships for annual Malabar exercises that began Tuesday in the Indian Ocean marking the growing strategic convergence of the four countries amid rising concerns about Chinese assertiveness in Asia.
India’s decision to include Australia for the annual drills comes in the wake of a push by Washington for deeper security collaboration in the “Quad,” the informal group that includes the United States, Japan, Australia and India as a counter to China.
Australia returns to the exercises after 13 years, when its participation triggered strident Chinese objections. But this time the Malabar exercises will endure as all four participants seek a long-term counterbalancing strategy to China according to analysts.
“In 2007 the Chinese threatened and cajoled different members to drop out and effectively defanged it,” according to Sreeram Chaulia, Dean at the Jindal School of international Affairs at O.P. Jindal University. “But this time the Malabar exercises won’t wind down because the coming decade is going to be very different — the threat perception of Chinese power is much higher now in all these four countries, so it has a lasting future.”
The first phase of the exercises, which includes simulated war games and combat maneuvers, is being held in the Bay of Bengal and will continue until Friday. The second phase will be held in mid-November in the Arabian Sea.
“The exercise, being conducted as a 'non-contact, at sea only' exercise in view of 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," the Indian Navy said in a statement on Monday.
The Malabar drill, which began in 1992 as a bilateral exercise between India and the United States, was expanded to include Japan as a permanent member in 2017. It has also seen the occasional participation of other countries.
While Australia has wanted to return for some time, analysts say India had been hesitant to extend an invitation over concerns of riling China.
But India’s six-month long military standoff with China in the Himalayas has prompted it to take a more decisive stand on collaborating with “the Quad” and analysts say this year’s Malabar exercises will help consolidate the group, to which Washington has been trying to give a strategic push since 2017.
Top U.S. officials have welcomed India's move.
“India’s recent decision to include Australia in the upcoming Malabar naval exercise alongside American, Indian, and Japanese forces reflects an acknowledgement of the importance of working multilaterally together to address global challenges,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last week in New Delhi after the two countries signed a military agreement.
China has denounced the “Quad” with its foreign minister, Wang Yi, saying last month that its “aim is to trumpet the old-fashioned Cold War mentality to stir up confrontation among different groups and blocs.”
Besides its recent tensions with China over a border dispute, India has also warily eyed Beijing’s growing investments and expanding influence in recent years in Indian Ocean countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh. With about 70 percent of global trade passing through the Indian Ocean, it is a hugely strategic waterway.
Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar exercises is a “big force multiplier” according to Chaulia. “In the absence of Australia, the Malabar was confined to narrower maritime spaces. But with another naval force that has power projection capabilities beyond its traditional domain and further west towards the Indian Ocean, its coverage has expanded.”
Analysts point out that Canberra has committed to spending billions of dollars on an ambitious military build-up, saying that it faces regional challenges. Australia’s diplomatic relations with China also worsened this year.