The first-ever joint Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal by the naval forces of the Quad nations, a new grouping comprising India, the United States, Japan and Australia, serves as an unambiguous signal of unity to counter the growing Chinese aggression in the region. The inclusion of Australia in the annual wargames carries particular significance because it is not only a sign of growing international cooperation in safeguarding the openness of the Indo-Pacific and maritime security but also demonstrates a collective intent to stop China in its tracks. The Malabar exercise comes amidst Chinese aggression along the border with India and in the seas with several Southeast Asian countries. Over the last few years, Beijing has been flexing its muscles in an unabashed display of territorial hegemony. The latest reports suggest that China has begun seizing Nepalese land in five frontier districts and raised structures within the Nepalese territory. The joint naval exercise comes on the heels of a successful Quad foreign ministers meeting in Tokyo in which each of the four democracies expressed support for a free and open Pacific. Initially, New Delhi was reluctant to include Australia due to concerns that expanding the exercise could send a negative political message to Beijing. However, China’s aggression on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as well as its naval deployments to the Indian Ocean and economic investments throughout South Asia has clearly prompted a change of thinking in New Delhi, reflecting a growing alignment with Washington’s perception of the challenge that China presents.
By welcoming Australia into the Malabar exercise, India has taken a crucial step in shedding the inhibitions it had in the past on the Quad or building a military alliance. For Australia too, the Quad provides an opportunity to expand on its underdeveloped relationship with India. Not surprisingly, Beijing has long viewed the Quad and any associated exercises with deep concern, dubbing them as ‘exclusive cliques’. Ironically, it is seeking to exclude and expel others from the South China Sea by attempting to block them from sailing and flying where international law permits. Given the economies, defence capabilities and geographic positions of the US, Japan, India and Australia, an increasingly capable and unified Quad represents a nightmare scenario for China because it prefers to keep the region isolated by exploiting power asymmetries. A joint exercise like Malabar now has the potential to provide a robust deterrent message to Beijing. The Quad grouping can aspire to move the partnership beyond naval cooperation to provide an alternative Indo-Pacific connectivity and infrastructure initiative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It also can emerge as a formidable bloc of democracies, some sort of an ‘Asian Nato’ arrangement against authoritarian China.
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