The Malabar naval exercises could be seen as an obvious manifestation of the desire among members of the Quad to keep trade routes open, military confrontations in check and keep the Indo-Pacific Region open for legitimate rules-based economic activity, writes Raghbendra Jha for South Asia Monitor
The Malabar naval exercises, held annually, began in 1992 as a bilateral exercise between the Indian and the United States navies with Japan becoming a permanent partner in 2015, although Japan had participated in the exercises as early as 2007. Other countries including Singapore and Australia joined the exercises in 2007 and Australia again in 2020.
The 2020 exercises - held in two phases - ended November 20. The primary goal of the exercises appears to be defensive and strategic, i.e. to keep the Indo-Pacific Region safe and open for maritime operations, including international trade and blue-economy activities. These exercises are normally held in the Indian Ocean but have been to other parts as well, e.g., Western Pacific, Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the like.
Emergence of Quad
There was also talk of the emergence of a ‘Quad’ of four democratic countries - India, the US, Australia, and Japan. China viewed this collective with suspicion and in 2007 issued a demarche to all four countries seeking details of their deliberations on the so-called Quad. In view of their strong trade exposures to China, India and Australia quickly reassured Beijing that the Quad was not working against Chinese interests in the region.
With the onset of the COVID pandemic both India and Australia, seem determined to diversify their economic and strategic exposure away from China. This was given concrete form when India and Australia established a strategic partnership in a virtual summit meeting between the prime ministers of both countries held in June 2020. Following the summit, India, which had been reluctant to re-admit Australia into the Malabar exercises, sent a formal invitation for the 2020 exercises. Moreover, the concept of the quad between India, the US, Australia, and Japan started taking a more concrete shape.
China’s debt diplomacy
What is of immediate concern to the members of the emerging quad is that China has been aggressively planting its naval footprint in the broader Indo-Pacific region. Several areas of concern are emerging. First, China is seeking entry into the Bay of Bengal by cultivating strong naval relationships with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Second, China has used its debt diplomacy effectively through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to gain access to the warm water of the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar where Pakistan is building a military port. This will then facilitate China’s direct access to oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. Third, China has established a strong foothold in Sri Lanka by exploiting the country’s fiscal deficit situation and outstanding Chinese loans for the port of Hambantota port near Colombo.
The Sri Lankan government leased out this port to China for an extended period in order to reschedule a loan of $1.1 billion that it had taken out for the original construction of the port. India has expressed concern over this development. The best policy here for Sri Lanka would have been to get its fiscal house in order. The Chinese debt could then have been less of an issue.
Further, China has also had strong interests in the Maldives and Seychelles. Finally, with its operations in the South China Sea, China has developed strong expertise in developing artificial islands which it can then use for military purposes.
Indo-Pacific region and its significance
The direct military threat from all these activities is most significant for India, which has had a long-standing military confrontation with China on their common Himalayan border, but other members of the quad also have strong interests in the region as well as the preservation of trade routes and the rules-based international order.
Hence, the Malabar naval exercises could be seen as an obvious manifestation of the desire among members of the Quad to keep trade routes open, military confrontations in check and keep the Indo-Pacific Region open for legitimate rules-based economic activity. For these objectives to be attained in a post COVID world the four members of the Quad, perhaps in alignment with other democratic countries, should ensure that Chinese debt diplomacy is kept in check.
This could involve a strong fiscal support program for countries in the region whose budgets have been ravaged by the coronavirus and who would otherwise be inclined to go into debt to China and could, later, provide military access to the country.
Strong economic partnerships needed
The upshot of the argument here is that the Malabar naval exercises should not be looked upon as a military activity alone. This activity should be complemented by an aggressive program of economic support for countries in the region.
Such an expansion of the policy parameters will not only allay any future military concerns but also build strong economic partnerships so that the Indo-Pacific Region becomes a haven of peace, prosperity, solidarity and stability.
(The writer is Professor of Economics and Executive Director, Australia South Asia Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra)