The progression of the Quad from an alignment of the willing to a force that could be directed against China can only demonstrate to Beijing the degree to which it has antagonised regional and extra-regional countries and placing the onus on it to mend its aggressive behaviour.
China’s assertiveness agenda over the last decade has been noteworthy. It has gradually progressed, in fact, from being proactive to assertive and now aggressive, a characteristic that has predominated since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. China has demonstrated that it will not back down on any front. At a time when almost every nation is preoccupied with containing the spread of the pandemic, China has sought to increase its influence in the maritime domain, extended its claims to Nepali territory and tried to use Kathmandu as a lever against India.
It is difficult to determine the reason for that aggression. Could it be that China is trying to hide its internal weaknesses by posturing as a regional hegemon, or is it trying to take advantage of a distracted world to extend its influence? Or, perhaps, both? Whatever the case may be, India not only challenged that aggression, but also changed its stance vis-à-vis China.
India has enacted measures to protect its boundaries and, beyond the immediate region, to protect its interest in the global commons such as the South China Sea. While augmenting its strategic partnerships, it is also using both hard power and diplomatic tools to safeguard its interests. To that end, New Delhi has conducted joint military and naval exercises with countries in its extended neighbourhood and beyond. The importance of those exercises is that they complement diplomatic efforts and ensure inter-operability. They help to test strategies and their use in actual hostilities, ensure combat readiness and create understanding between military and ancillary personnel.
The Geopolitics of the Malabar Exercise
What started as an annual bilateral maritime exercise between the navies of the US and India in 1992 was trilateralised on a permanent basis with the induction of Japan in 2015. The exercise is held alternatively in the Pacific and Indian oceans. It was conducted in the Indian Ocean this year.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mooted the idea of the QUAD for the first time in 2007. The Malabar exercise later became a crucial element of the QUAD, as it was expanded to include Japan, Australia and Singapore. In September 2007, ships, aircraft and submarines of the five countries gathered in the Bay of Bengal to participate in a joint naval exercise. Beijing opposed the grouping vociferously, alleging that it was an attempt to contain China’s rise. Australia soon pulled out of the exercise owing to its economic ties to China.
Efforts to re-introduce Australia into the Malabar exercise since 2017 were met by India’s reluctance and resistance to form any strategic alliance that China could perceive as a direct threat and criticism of it as an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation that aimed to counter it. India’s decision to welcome Australia into the Malabar exercise in 2020 is the result of China’s aggression in the Himalayas and overall Indo-Pacific region. India has traditionally sought to hedge its bets vis-à-vis China, but no longer has that luxury. The fact that India today faces open Chinese aggression makes it incumbent on New Delhi to explore and deepen every international alliance that can serve as a source of symbolic and substantive support, including in the maritime domain.
Thus, the QUAD ministerial meeting in Tokyo followed by the Malabar exercise, which lent a military dimension to the QUAD, will act as a glue to a joint Indo-Pacific strategy in which all four nations push back against China.
It is time to take a bird’s eye view of the evolving security situation in the Indo-Pacific region and make pragmatic decisions. The QUAD and the Malabar Exercise should be viewed as a major step towards building a sustainable Indo-Pacific coalition thereby addressing the massive strategic imbalance generated by an economically and militarily powerful China. China’s muscular unilateralism is disturbing and there is now a consensus, among many major liberal democracies that China threatens the international system, liberal societies and a rules-based regime.
The evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific has the attention of leading global powers. China is uncomfortable with the idea of multi-national exercises that could be aimed at countering it, hence its implicit threats to the countries that it believes threaten its ambitions. The Malabar exercise sends a strong message to China that its aggressive and illegal encroachment on terrestrial and maritime borders has been noted. China’s Malacca Dilemma will be reignited. That issue combined with the concretisation of the QUAD, which India was reluctant to signal previously, gives Beijing cause for concern. The onus is now on China to change its behaviour.