The military exercise of the Quad powers is strategically a major development in the Bay of Bengal that has direct impact on the littoral countries. As popularly termed, the Quad war-game in the Bay of Bengal has been one of the most talked issues in the recent days. The ‘Quad’ is back after a gap of 13 years, with a rising China firmly in its cross-hairs. Another ‘like-minded’ country, Germany has also declared it will deploy a warship to patrol the Indo-Pacific to safeguard the ‘international rules-based order’ in the critical region from this year onwards. Warships from the Quad nations, the US, Australia, India and Japan, on 3 November, 2020 kicked off the four-day, Phase-1 of the 24th Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, with the focus being on complex anti-submarine warfare and other combat maneuvers on the high seas. Phase-2 of the war-games in the Arabic Sea from November 17 to 20 was “more power-packed”. The second phase made the participation of the Nimitz strike group of the US Navy and Indian Navy’s Vikramaditya carrier battle group. The USS Nimitz is the world’s largest warship.
Going back to the root, Quad is an informal strategic dialogue between four powerful countries- US, Australia, Japan and India. It is also known as quadrilateral dialogue. In the world map, the four countries’ locations form a quadrilateral, a closed two-dimensional shape that has four straight sides. The objective of this coalition is to secure the Indo-Pacific region from Chinese strategic and security policy. The idea behind this grouping was first proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007. However, the idea did not move ahead because Australia pulled out due to Chinese pressure. After 13 years, in 2020, US, Australia, India and Japan turned this idea into reality and gave shape to long pending quad coalition. The same year Australia joined the Malabar exercise after an invitation from India making it the first time all members of the quad will be engaged militarily. Last year, due to outbreak of the pandemic, covid-19. China has been heavily criticized. In June, China-Australia relations started declining. India capitalized on this and sent an invitation to Australia to join the quad.
There are many critical sea routes in the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese are well aware of it and they always have tried to extend their influence over there, as a part of their global expansion policy. So, the objective of quad is to develop new strategies to keep the critical sea routes in the Indo-Pacific region free from any Chinese influence. China knows this well and criticized this calling the policy “the Asian version of NATO”. While not a formal military alliance like NATO, it is seen by some as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and hegemony in Asia and the Pacific. The collation has been denounced by Beijing as an anti-China bloc. US, India both are traditionally China’s enemies and they with other two major powers made this coalition to confront China in the Indo-Pacific. Besides, confrontational positions as observed the Quad against China and China against the Quad often make a warring situation in the Bay of Bengal. As an Indian senior policy maker observes, “The strategic show of intent to China is unambiguous”.
The high-voltage exercise comes amidst India’s ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh. The Australian and Indian defense ministries announced the expansion of the drills, which had been long-speculated. Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said the Malabar exercises were key to enhancing Australia’s maritime capabilities, and showcased the “deep trust between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests.” Australia’s previous participation in the drills in 2007 sparked diplomatic protests from China. Relations between China and Australia have since deteriorated, however, with the two countries locked in a series of long-running trade disputes. Other members of the Quad have also seen tensions with Beijing spike in recent months. Indian and Chinese troops clashed along the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between the two countries in the Himalayas in June. Japan and China remain at odds over the disputed Senkaku Islands, named the Diaoyus by China, where Beijing has increased the presence of its coast guard vessels.
The US meanwhile has increased the tempo of its naval and air missions in the South China Sea, while pushing back at Beijing’s claims to the vast waterway. In a statement, India’s Defense Ministry said the four participants “collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules based international order.” The exercises began in November in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea, India. Malabar began as a bilateral exercise between India and the US. Japan became a permanent Malabar member in 2015. Previous exercises have taken place in the Indian Ocean as well as off the coast of Japan a year ago, and around the US Pacific territory of Guam and in the Philippine Sea in 2018. The 2017 exercises in the Indian Ocean involved aircraft carriers from the US, India and Japan in what were then described as the largest naval exercises in the region in two decades.
The new entrant, Australia, last participated in the Malabar in 2007, which had been slammed by China as a move by “an axis of democracies” designed to “counter and contain” it in Indo-Pacific. Australia promptly backtracked. India also then restricted the Malabar to a bilateral exercise with the US for several years till Japan became a regular participant from 2015 onwards. Thirteen years later China now has the world’s largest Navy, surpassing even the US in the number of warships if not technology, and has begun to aggressively flex its muscles from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The Quad countries, as many others like Germany and the UK, are obviously troubled with China’s strong-arm tactics in the region. India, for instance reiterated that Malabar will “show case 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”
In 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the then recently-revived Quad and the Indo-Pacific concept as a “headline-grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like sea foam.” Quad 2.0 is, however, bound to raise serious concerns in China. In October this year, in China’s most high-profile criticism of the Quad so far, Wang said Washington was aiming to build a “so-called Indo-Pacific NATO.” His remarks underline how Chinese officials, who once sought to downplay the Quad as an overhyped idea are now highlighting it prominently, describing it as part of a broader American effort in the region to “contain” China.
The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, China Daily, in a recent article warned Australia: “To be an ally of the U.S. does not necessarily mean it has to be a roughneck in its gang. With Australia mired in its worst recession in decades, it should steer clear of Washington’s brinkmanship with China before it is too late.” New Delhi will also have to be mindful of its vulnerability to Chinese retaliation along the border should the Quad take on a military dimension. Unlike Japan and Australia, India does not have the luxury of a formal alliance with the U.S. Japan will have to strike a balance in its desire to confront Beijing over security issues while preserving its intertwined economic interests with China. Japan’s exports to China were worth $134.68 billion in 2019.
Quad 2.0 has lent considerable optimism toward a robust forum to check China’s ambitions and preserve a rule-based international order in the Indo-Pacific. There are signs that the Quad could expand to become the Quad Plus with the addition of countries like South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand. Germany has indicated that it will increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific, possibly bringing it a step closer to the Quad. France, which already has a formidable presence in the Indian Ocean, could be a possible candidate to join the Quad. The United States has publicly distanced itself from the idea of the Quad being an “Asian NATO” but has not denied the possibility of it attaining a similar status in future. As American power declines in the Indo-Pacific, the need to rely more on partnerships like the Quad will increase.
The Malabar naval exercises provide a good template for Quad countries to further their cooperation. As maritime challenges are a common ground, increasing interoperability between the navies should be a priority. China, despite its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, remains vulnerable at sea. Improving intelligence sharing, secure communications, shared logistics, and better interoperability are key areas in which there should be a year-round focus rather than only during the annual Malabar exercise. India’s recent signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) along with the earlier Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) and Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the U.S. are positive steps in that direction. India also has military logistics agreements with Australia and Japan.
There are some apprehensions that the new U.S. administration may not be as committed to pushing the Quad forward as the Trump administration. The strong bipartisan support for the Quad and the anti-China sentiments in the U.S., however, belies such an assumption. According to the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of Americans hold a negative view of China, up 13 percentage points from last year. There is no doubt that all eyes will be on the new U.S. administration to signal continued support to the Quad. India, Australia, and Japan have committed to the Quad at considerable military and economic risks from China. Any dithering by the U.S. will be a mortal blow to the prospects of the grouping.
For India, it is time to shed its traditional reluctance for multilateralism couched under the terms of strategic autonomy. India needs to send a clear signal to other Quad members that it is not only willing to increase military cooperation with them but also take part in developmental initiatives like the existing trilateral Indo-Pacific infrastructure partnership between the U.S., Japan, and Australia. The successful conduct of Malabar 2020 has sent a strong signal to China that the march of Pax Sinica will not go unchallenged. A suitable follow up to Malabar 2020 will be conducting the next Malabar Exercise in the South China Sea. The experts in the Quad nations argue that the first step to defeating the dragon would be to take the battle to its backyard. The Quad war games as a display of power and determination of USA, India, Japan and Australia to contain and confront China is a part of new strategic environment in the Bay of Bengal and the surrounding regions.