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Malabar 2020: the coming together of the Quad in the seas

Illustration by R. Rajesh  

Later this week, frontline warships from India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. will team up off the coast of Visakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal to carry out advanced manoeuvres, including surface, anti-submarine and anti-air warfare operations, cross-deck flying, seamanship evolutions and weapon firing exercises under Phase-I of Malabar 2020. This is the first time since 2007 that the four countries are together in the Malabar naval exercise. While the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the four has no military dimension, they are now teaming up to exercise together under the Malabar banner.

Also read: Australia to join Malabar naval exercise next month

This comes after a Ministry of Defence (MoD) statement on October 17, which said: “As India seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy.” The exercise is being held in two phases with Phase-I from November 3 to 6 and Phase-II from November 17 to 20 in the Arabian Sea.

For over three years, New Delhi was reluctant to accept Canberra’s request to join Malabar as an observer. The first indication of a change in view came in June when officials signalled that there was a rethink. A key meeting in the MoD in August took an in-principle decision to invite Australia for this year’s exercise, pending a formal announcement. Experts believe the ongoing stand-off with China in eastern Ladakh had an impact in changing New Delhi’s view.

The participants of Malabar 2020 are engaging to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain, the MoD statement said. “They collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules-based international order.” The planning conference for the exercise was held virtually due to COVID-19 and the exercise has been planned on a ‘non-contact-at sea’ format.

Also read: A ‘mistake’ to have walked out of Quad, Malabar exercise in 2008: Australian envoy Barry O’Farrell

Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said the Malabar Exercise showcases the “deep trust between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests”.

In a recent interview to The Hindu, Australian High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell, while saying they were “delighted” at being invited to Malabar, said with the benefit of hindsight, he can say that withdrawing from Malabar “was a mistake”. Australia had joined Malabar in September 2007, which also had a small contingent from Singapore and coincided with coming together of the ‘Quad’ grouping. Both were quickly disbanded after sharp reaction from China.

History of the drill

Malabar began as a simple Passage Exercise (PASSEX) in 1992 between the Navies of India and the U.S. and hit a pause in 1998 after India’s nuclear tests in Pokhran, to resume again in 2002. Since then, it has become an annual feature.

“The 2003 Malabar was seminal, since it not only graduated from the uni/two-dimensional level to a three-dimensional exercise (involving surface, sub-surface and air platforms), but also included Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) missions against suspect vessels,” wrote Gurpreet S. Khurana, executive director, National Maritime Foundation, in an issue brief, ‘Malabar Naval exercises: trends and tribulations’, dated August 5, 2014. “Such operations may be necessary to curb terrorist use of sea transportation, including for trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”

Both sides fielded submarines for the first time in 2003 and aircraft carriers in 2005 — USS Nimitz and INS Viraat. Over the years, the exercise grew in scope and complexity. It got converted into a trilateral exercise with Japan’s inclusion in 2015.

Phase-1 of Malabar 2020 will see participation of U.S.-guided missile destroyer USS John S McCain, Australian long-range frigate HMAS Ballarat with integral MH-60 helicopter and Japanese destroyer JS Onami with integral SH-60 helicopter.

Indian Navy is fielding destroyer INS Ranvijay, stealth frigate INS Shivalik, off-shore patrol vessel INS Sukanya, fleet support ship INS Shakti and submarine INS Sindhuraj, a Sindhughosh-class Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine. Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer, P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft, Dornier maritime patrol aircraft, and helicopters will also be participating in the exercise. Officials were quiet about the flotilla for Phase-II.

China gave a restrained response on the announcement. Asked about Australia’s inclusion in Malabar, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in Beijing that they “noticed” this development and China believes military cooperation between countries should be “conducive to regional peace and stability”.

Military cooperation

While New Delhi may have been reluctant to let Australia into Malabar, it has quietly improved its military cooperation with each of the Quad countries bilaterally. Information exchange for enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness is a prominent theme for the Indian Navy with increased presence of Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean.

Since 2008, China has maintained regular presence in the Indian Ocean Region in the name of anti-piracy patrols and even deployed submarines for the purpose. In 2017, China formally opened its first overseas base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa.

This has also brought a change in the Navy’s operational philosophy in the last few years with its mission-based deployments, a series of logistics support agreements to increase operational turnaround in the region and beyond and other foreign cooperation and capacity building activities. The Malabar and cooperation with the U.S. is one of the many strands being pursued. There are also other regional organisations such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Goa Maritime Conclave that India is actively engaging.

This is the first Malabar exercise since India signed mutual logistics pacts with all three countries. India has also now signed all the four foundational or enabling agreements with the U.S., which takes interoperability several notches higher, not just with the U.S but also with Australia and Japan.

For instance, during the past Malabar exercises, to enable encrypted communication, the U.S. would install its encrypted communication kits, CENTRIXS (Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System), onboard Indian ships. India got access to these systems after it signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018.

In March 2019, Indian the Navy and the U.S. Navy signed a loan agreement and installed two Pacific fleet-provided CENTRIXS kits at the Indian Navy headquarters, said Ellen Lord, U.S. Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition and Sustainment, in November last year.

More systems have been added in a variety of places and platforms though officials declined to give a specific number. This will enable seamless communication with all participants of Malabar.

An interesting aspect of India’s deployment is that a Russian origin submarine, U.S. origin long-range submarine-hunting aircraft, U.K. origin trainer aircraft and indigenous stealth frigate armed with a mixed armament package will be exercising with the U.S. and its allies. While all eyes are on the exercise, the question is whether Australia’s participation this year is a one-off incident or it will continue to be part of Malabar going forward. The MoD has stated that Australia will be part of Malabar 2020 but has not commented on the future.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 1:00:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/malabar-2020-the-coming-together-of-the-quad-in-the-seas/article32992805.ece

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