CAA’s Articulate – Making the right call on ‘Malabar’ going Quad


Context:

  • Recently, a key meeting of India’s Ministry of Defence discussed the issue of adding Australia to the trilateral Malabar naval exercise with Japan and the United States in the Bay of Bengal.


More on the news:

  • There was no decision reached, however it appears a green signal to Australia could soon be given, making it the first time since 2007 that all members of Quad will participate in a joint military drill, aimed apparently at China.
  • Japan and the U.S. have also been keen on Australia’s inclusion for some time now and have been pushing India to consider it.

Reasons for probable change in India’s stance: 

The inclusion of Australia in the Malabar exercises would surely mark a major shift for India’s Indo-Pacific plans. 

  • India’s Indo-Pacific plan: Following the stand-off in Ladakh, many Indian analysts believe the time is right for India to shed its traditional defensiveness in the maritime domain.
  • Signal to China:
    • The move of expansion of Malabar exercise comes in the midst of the ongoing stand-off with China on the border, the biggest crisis along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in over five decades. 
    • And Australia’s inclusion would be surely seen as a possible first step towards the militarization of the Quad coalition, which has been opposed by China in the past.
  • Repeated requests by Australia
    • Since April 2017 Australia has made repeated requests to join the exercises.
    • However, India did not include Australia in the exercises in 2018 and 2019, on the other hand, the bilateral AUSINDEX naval exercise expanded in scope and complexity.
    • Recently, Australian PM also announced Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, which has been termed a “significant pivot”

Need for a proactive Quad:

If India is not to cede ground physically or diplomatically, it must muster all elements of its “comprehensive national power”, including the maritime, and create a strong negotiating position. 

  • Countering China’s South Asia Box strategy
    • Apart from the balance of forces on land favouring China, there is also the Beijing-Islamabad Axis that awaits activation. 
    • Keeping tensions confined to the Himalayan arena is, therefore, not only militarily advantageous to China but a continental focus also helps to keep India contained in a “South-Asia box”.
  • Furthering India’s maritime ambitions: 
    • India’s status as a nuclear-weapon state and major land/air power, as well as a growing economy and attractive market, has been known for some time, 
    • It should be noted that New Delhi’s newfound liking for the US, the Quad and ASEAN is rooted only in its ability to project power and influence in distant ocean reaches.

Challenges 

  • Chinese opposition:  China’s extreme concern about the concepts of Malabar as well as the Indo-Pacific and Quad arises from the suspicion that they are precursors to “containment” — the Cold War geopolitical strategy used by the US to isolate and engineer the collapse of the USSR.
    • Possible maritime conflict: Aggressive posturing in the Eastern Indian Ocean, could needlessly open up a new front in the India-China conflict.
  • Indian navy is not expeditionary: There is an argument that the Indian armed forces were not “expeditionary forces” — for global deployment — they must confine themselves to “guard and fight” only along national borders.
  • No coherent Indo pacific strategy:
    • India’s preferred formulation of a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’ refers to a multipolar regional order within which Delhi can maintain its strategic autonomy.
    • But for the US, Australia & Japan, a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ means establishing a regional architecture with fellow democratic countries to help maintain the ‘rules-based order’ as China becomes the most powerful actor in the region.
    • Failing to deter China: Having failed to deter China from creating and fortifying artificial islands in open defiance of the UN Tribunal’s verdict, all that the US has been able to demonstrate is the hollow symbolism of US warships conducting “freedom of navigation” sailings through Chinese-claimed waters.
    • Quad’s ambivalence: In 2008, Australia decided to dump the Quad to pander to China’s wishes. Indian PM Narendra Modi, in his speech at the Shangri La Dialogue 2018, sought to reassure Beijing by stating that we do not consider Quad as directed against any country.
  • China may gain Chabahar port: The US must also note that should Iran abandon India for China as a partner in the Chabahar port deal, it would represent yet another huge gain for China. The PLAN may now have not just Djibouti but also Gwadar and Chabahar as maritime footholds in India’s Arabian Sea neighbourhood.

Way forward: 

A formal revival and re-invigoration of the Quad is called for after careful cost benefit analysis by India.

  • Seek external balancing: It is time to seek an enlargement of this grouping into a partnership of the like-minded nations who are facing Chinese harassment, in order to maintain peace and tranquillity and to ensure observance of the UN Law of the Seas.
    • Australia being re-invited to participate in the Quad deserves a conditional welcome, given Canberra’s past inconsistency and political flip-flops.
  • Coherent Indo pacific strategy: While Malabar remains a visible and reassuring symbol of Indo-US-Japanese solidarity, there is a need for the US to recast, along with partners, its Indo-Pacific strategy, which has had no impact on China’s unfolding hegemonic master-plan. 
  • Cost benefit analysis
    • The cooperation with the U.S. and Japan without attendant benefits of strategic technology transfers such as vital anti-submarine warfare tech will not improve the Indian Navy’s deterrence potential in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
    • India also needs to assess that while these counties may engage in the occasional naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, the U.S. and Japanese navies have little spare capacity for sustained surveillance and deterrence operations in the IOR.
    • The U.S. would expect in future that its Indo-Pacific partners, including India, to assist the U.S. Navy in its South China Sea endeavour.

Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD)

  • It is an informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
  • It is also known as the Quad.
  • It has a shared objective of ensuring a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.
  • The idea of grouping was first mooted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007.

 Malabar Exercise

  • It is an annual trilateral naval exercise between the navies of India, Japan, and the USA which is held alternately in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
  • Malabar had begun as a bilateral naval exercise between India and the U.S. in 1992, and was expanded into a trilateral format with the inclusion of Japan in 2015.
  • Other bilateral exercises between India and Australia are Pitch Black and AUSINDEX.