The Australian navy's HMAS Canberra based at Garden Island in Sydney. Australian naval vessels will be part of the Malabar exercises this year. Photo: William West/AFP

Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) countries are set to hold their first military exercises after Australia confirmed its participation in the four-nation war games.

The Malabar exercises will be held in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea later this year along with the United States, Japan and hosts India.

Started with only India and the US in 1992, the Malabar series added Japan in 2015. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a vocal advocate of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and led the way to the formation of QUAD in 2007-08 and effective functioning after 2017.

All four countries are facing aggressive posturing and action from China, making Australia’s participation significant.

The significance for India increases as it grapples with the occupation of its northern territories by China after incursions in April and May. Forces of the two most populous countries remain battle-ready and face spending the severe Ladkah winter in bunkers.

This year’s Malabar exercises follows a QUAD foreign ministers meeting in Tokyo this month. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper are due to visit India, Sri Lanka and Maldives from October 26.

The highlight of Pompeo’s India visit will be signing of a defense agreement. India is the only QUAD country to have a land border with China and has been facing the brunt of its belligerence as India struggles with Covid-19 and a slowing economy. The agreement could help India with US equipment, intelligence and logistics.

Japan and Australia enjoy the benefit of US security cover under existing alliances and agreements. This leaves India as the only one in the group vulnerable and potentially isolated. While India and China are conducting Ladakh talks away from the limelight, hopes of Chinese withdrawal from Indian territory are remote.

Past Malabar exercises have been conducted in the Philippines Sea in 2018 and off Japan in 2019.

Australia joining Malabar is being described by foreign policy experts as “upping the ante” and “giving QUAD extra teeth”. Australia last took part in the exercises in 2007. China then issued an official protest to all the participating countries including Singapore over the exercises. Countries, especially those from the South East Asia, have been wary of antagonizing China.

“High-end military exercises like Malabar are key to enhancing Australia’s maritime capabilities, building interoperability with our close partners, and demonstrating our collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said.

However, China’s aggressive posture and actions in the East China Sea, South China Sea, Ladakh and its attitude towards Japan and Australia have soured relations. A Pew survey showed Australians’ goodwill towards China plummeted to 15% from 64% in the last three years.

Japan too faces aggressive postures by Chinese vessels near Japan’s Senkaku Islands.

Australia doesn’t face any direct or immediate threat from China. Yet observers say it remains concerned with China’s growing financial presence in Australia, the presence of many of its students and its ambitions over islands in the South Pacific.

India’s Ministry of Defense said, “The exercise will strengthen coordination between the navies of the participating countries.

“The participants in Exercise Malabar 2020 are engaging to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain. They collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules-based international order.’’

So far, there’s been no Chinese reaction to the naval exercise. But its response to the QUAD meeting gives a clue.

Global Times wrote that in QUAD the US wants to create an Asian version of NATO. It noted that the other three countries downplayed anti-China elements at the Tokyo meeting. Japan is not willing to be an enemy of China for economic reasons, it said.

India’s enthusiasm for participating in the QUAD was more time-sensitive because of its border friction with China. New Delhi was trying to increase the pressure on Beijing by means of a closer and organized mechanism and force China to make concessions to India on border issues. Australia viewed China more out of differences in values than specific strategic threats and conflicts of interests, said Global Times.

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