Free And Open Indo-Pacific: 4-Nation Malabar Exercise And Its Strategic Importance For India

Free And Open Indo-Pacific: 4-Nation Malabar Exercise And Its Strategic Importance For India

From bilateral Indo-US naval engagement three decades ago, the Malabar has evolved into a formidable four-nation maritime force, unitedly challenging the emerging threat from a regional “warlord” and a potential superpower, which takes prides in calling itself the dragon, the ferocious looking, fire spewing imaginary flying animal. China, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, aspires to revive the era of the mythological middle kingdom when the ancient Chinese empires were supposedly owning the maritime area and ruling from the centre of the earth called the Zhong Guo, meaning the Middle Kingdom.

The dragon fumes in anger every year when India, the US, Australia and Japan bring together their naval might. This time, the four did this right in the area claimed to be a maritime zone of Chinese influence. India has a huge stake in keeping the sea lanes of communication open, so as to facilitate unhindered movement not only of cargo traffic but also of military ships. Likewise, other partner countries have similar concerns over China’s growing military aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. No power can alone challenge China’s expansionist mindset, and hence the need for four nations to pool their naval resources.

Since China intends to establish its control and suzerainty over most part of South China Sea, claiming to be a historical Lord of the Sea, the four nations sharing common concerns came under the umbrella of Malabar to preserve peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific maritime area. 

The weeklong Malabar-22 naval rendezvous this year, which concluded on November 15, was organised in the contested waters of the Philippine Sea off the coast of Japan, which witnessed high tempo drills in multiple domains as well as complex surface, subsurface and air operations including live firing drills. In 2018, the annual exercise was conducted off the coast of Guam, an US Island territory in Micronesia in western pacific, and off the coast of Japan in 2019. In 2020, the exercise was hosted by India in two phases in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, whereas in 2021 the US navy again hosted the mega-war game off the coast of Guam in the western pacific. Every year, the scope and complexity of the exercise has increased, in which the four navies divide themselves into Red and Blue forces and create a war-like scenario.

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LOOKING AHEAD: [email protected] 

‘Security And Growth For All’ In Indo-Pacific Region

This was the third year when all four nations took part in the Malabar naval exercise to advance the collective planning, integration and employment of advanced warfare tactics between participating nations. According to a naval official, this year’s at-sea exercise included a variety of high-end tactical training events, submarine integration, anti-submarine warfare training, air defence exercises, multinational replenishment-at-sea operations, communications drills, joint war-fighting planning scenarios, gunnery exercise, and maritime interdiction operations. 

Heading the US Naval Task Force in the exercise, Rear Admiral Michel Donnelly said after its conclusion: “Now, it is more important than ever for the forward-deployed Carrier Strike Group to work closely with other maritime forces and deter all who challenge a free and open Indo-Pacific.” 

According to Australian naval commander Jonathan Earley, “Participation in high-end maritime exercises, such as Exercise Malabar, demonstrates Australia’s commitment to working with strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific region. This exercise contributes to regional security by deepening professional relationships among India, Japan and the United States to build interoperability in the maritime domain.” 

Rear Admiral Ikeuchi Izuru, commander of the Japanese naval fleet, said: “I also believe that this exercise embodied the firm and united will of the four countries toward the realization of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.”

Describing the four-nation naval engagement, Indian Navy’s spokesperson said: “Malabar 2022 provides another opportunity for the Indian Navy to enhance interoperability and mutual understanding with the participating navies in keeping with the national vision of security and growth for all in the region.” 

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It is obvious from the comments of the leaders of the four participating navies that the common refrain was concern relating to ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, allegedly threatened by China, though they did not directly name it.

#IndianNavy’s indigenous stealth frigate #INSShivalik & ASW corvette #INSKamorta led by RAdm Sanjay Bhalla #FOCEF participated in #MALABAR22 off Yokosuka Japan.Warships, aircraft & submarines from 🇮🇳 🇯🇵 🇺🇸& 🇦🇺engaged in adv #MaritimeEx & drills which culminated on #15Nov 22. pic.twitter.com/OAXTbwjxh8

— SpokespersonNavy (@indiannavy) November 16, 2022

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Tackling The China Threat

Interestingly the four-member Malabar has taken shape parallel to the evolution of QUAD, a quadrilateral group comprising the same four nations. And hence, it is also referred to as the military arm of the QUAD. The QUAD nations, however, officially deny such labelling. AUKUS, another three-nation military alliance of the United Kingdom, the USA and Australia, has already emerged but not much has been heard of grouping. It was speculated that AUKUS would act as the military arm of the QUAD. Malabar is described as an independent naval group of four nations whose vision is to ensure that the Indo-Pacific remains open following the precepts of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.

The need for repeated assertion of the validity of the UNCLOS in the Indo-Pacific region, especially the South China Sea and the East China Sea, arose because of China’s claim over most of the maritime area. In recent years, China has shown an aggressive military posture in the South China Sea and beyond. If China’s claim over the South China Sea is ignored, the day will not be far off when China will start regulating not only the movements of international Cargo shipping but also military ships. The Malacca Strait, which connects the Andaman Sea and the South China Sea, facilitates more than half of Indian maritime trade. If this 500-mile-long and 40-155-mile-wide channel is blocked by some inimical forces, India’s external trade would be disrupted, causing a huge adverse impact on the economy. Other three Malabar partners also have similar concerns relating to their maritime trade.

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To further its claim over the South China Sea, China has been building artificial islands and extending its sovereignty over the maritime area and thus causing tension with neighbouring littoral states of South China Sea. China also claims ownership of many of the islands in the South and East China Sea, which also has raised the temperature in the maritime area. To deter China, Malabar naval powers have been flexing muscle in the maritime area to restrain the dragon from taking any provocative action and disturb the peace and stability prevailing since ages.

The author is a senior journalist and strategic affairs analyst.

[Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs, and views expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this website are personal.]

[Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs, and views expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this website are personal.]

[Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs, and views expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this website are personal.]