The Malabar Exercise 2023: Evolving Dynamics of QUAD in the Indo-Pacific

The Malabar 2023 naval exercises signify a notable shift in maritime relations between India, Japan, Australia, and the United States, which are also members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). The 31st Malabar multilateral exercise has taken place on the coast of Sydney from August 11–21. This is the first year that Australia has hosted the military drill.

The Malabar exercise in 2023 has involved more than 2,000 personnel across the four nations. During the Malabar exercise of 2023, the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force strategically deployed its destroyer JS Shiranui (DD-120). Simultaneously, the US deployed the USS Rafael Peralta (DDG-115), a destroyer vessel; the USNS Rappahannock (T-AO-204), a fleet oiler; a submarine; and a P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA). India sent its naval destroyer, INS Kolkata (D63), and frigate, INS Sahyadri (F49). In addition, Australia has sent the destroyer HMAS Brisbane (DDG-41), the landing ship HMAS Choules (L100), a submarine, and a fleet of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F-35 fighters and P-8A Poseidon MPA.

The 2023 Malabar exercise demonstrates cooperation and interoperability shown by the naval forces of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The exercise has been conducted in the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Philippine Sea, and the Western Pacific. This includes a range of exercises, such as anti-surface, anti-air, and anti-submarine operations, live weapon fire, and tactical drills in upholding an Indo-Pacific that is both free and open. From a geopolitical perspective, this exercise shows deterrence since the Quad functions as a fundamental framework for all other countries operating inside this region. The exercise further fosters increased confidence and trust among the Quad partners as well as their allied nations, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The United States wants to gain several things against China in the Indo-Pacific with its participation in Malabar 2023.  The Quad is a key mechanism for the United States to work with like-minded democracies in the Indo-Pacific, and to counter any potential threats from China or other aggressive actors. China has been challenging the status quo of the US. So, the United States has been conducting freedom of navigation operations, arms sales, and joint exercises to uphold its security commitments and reassure its allies and partners. Through this exercise, the US has maintained its military edge and access in the region. China has been developing and deploying anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, such as ballistic missiles, submarines, cyber weapons, and space assets, that could threaten U.S. forces and bases in the region. So, the United States has been investing in new technologies to enhance its deterrence and response options, such as hypersonic weapons, unmanned systems, long-range strikes, distributed operations, and dynamic force employment.

Through its participation in Malabar 2023, India wants to demonstrate its naval capabilities and counter any potential threats from China or other actors. India also deployed its P-8I, Multi Role Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft, which landed at Jakarta Airport on return transit post participation in Malabar-2023. 

Japan also inked an agreement with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which shares fundamental principles with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision. Japan wants to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance, improve operations with the Royal Australian Navy, and enhance bilateral defense cooperation with the Indian Navy for regional peace and the maintenance of maritime order

Through the Malabar exercise, Australia ensures its national security and economic prosperity. Australia also works with its partners to counter terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyber threats, and illegal fishing in the region. Also, Australia wants to ensure that no hostility towards Western interests that establishes a strategic foothold in the region from which it could launch attacks on Australia or threaten allied access or our maritime approaches.  Australia uses a range of levers to pursue its interests in the Western Pacific, including military, diplomatic, economic, and development assistance.

China has the biggest naval fleet globally, including 355 warships and submarines. China has already conveyed its dissatisfaction with the Malabar exercise. China regards this region as within its sphere of influence. It has deployed several satellites to observe and monitor the military operations of the Quad Nations during the Malabar Exercise 2023. The Malabar exercise also sends a signal to China, which has been increasingly assertive and aggressive, especially in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. China has been accused of violating the sovereignty and rights of other countries, militarizing disputed islands and reefs, coercing and intimidating its neighbors, and undermining the existing regional order.

The significance of the Malabar 2023 exercise is heightened due to the current Russia-Ukraine confrontation, which has evolved into a comprehensive battle since March 2023. Russia has initiated a substantial military attack against Ukraine in March 2022. In the event of NATO or other nations’ involvement in the battle, Russia has issued a warning about the potential use of nuclear weapons. The Malabar 2023 exercise demonstrates the Quad nations’ apprehension over both China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and Russia’s expansionist tendencies in Europe and other regions. The drill conveys a message of unity and support to Ukraine and other nations now confronting Russian aggression or involvement. 

The regional repercussions of the Quad countries’ Malabar exercise are significant for the Pacific Islands. China’s collaboration with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea aligns with its broader objective which has strategic significance since they are situated inside the second and third island chains. China has been extending economic help, facilitating infrastructure development, offering debt relief, donating vaccines, and giving security support to these nations, in addition to forging security partnerships with them. The initiatives undertaken by China have worried regional stakeholders, including Australia, New Zealand, France, and Indonesia.

The Quad Nations have also been increasing their involvement and assistance for the Pacific Islands through bilateral means. Additionally, Quad has engaged in cooperative activities and discussions with other Pacific Island countries, including Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Samoa, and Palau. Furthermore, Quad leaders restated their commitment to upholding the sovereignty and independence of the Pacific Island nations. As a result, a wider range of strategic concerns and objectives that influence their collaboration in the Indo-Pacific determine Quad’s involvement in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. 

The Malabar exercise was a significant milestone in the evolution of the Quad as a strategic partnership that aims to uphold a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. It also demonstrated the commitment and capability of the Quad countries to work together for regional peace and prosperity.

[Photo by Royal Australian Navy]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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