The Malabar exercise 2020 which was held in November last year was a joint Naval exercise between India, Japan, Australia and the United States. The first exercise in 1992 was a bilateral exercise between India and the US, and Japan joined forces in 2015. However, after its separation in 2007, this was the first time that Australia had also joined the exercise in 2020. A point worth remembering is that the exercise was held in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea as well covering the Indian Ocean. While this tradition has been in practice for almost three decades now, motivations for the same may have been slightly different this time. The question remains: Was the exercise just a relationship building scheme or something more?
India and its belligerent neighbour, China, have had their relationship in troubled waters in recent months with a series of military stand-offs. The Indo-China border dispute not only jeopardised their peaceful relationship which was already on edge, but also made both the nation’s intentions clear. Even while relations were relatively cordial, China was known to express its displeasure at joint exercises that India had participated in the past. Due to this, the Malabar exercise remained bilateral for a few years since India wanted to avoid any unnecessary hard feelings. However, the country’s reaction to the Malabar exercise last year can be well imagined.
Australia has also been at odds with China for its aggressive behaviour. The island nation has always disliked China’s attempt at strong arming other nations to assert their dominance and dismissing pre-existing laws which do not favour them. Australia’s return to the exercise was also a clear indication of support to India against China. The fact that Australia had also marked India as of “first order importance” in its 2017 Foreign White Paper Policy is also the sign of a growing dense relationship. This partnership between India and Australia has also been a cause of worry and dismay for China.
Last year’s exercise also saw the use of warships, stealth frigates, aircraft carriers and submarines by the countries of the “quad grouping”. This may also be assumed to be a demonstration of India’s military capabilities for China to notice. The joining of powers of the four powerful Indo-Pacific nations is worth taking note of. Experts have also said that such exercises may also help during an actual war situation as coordination may prove to be much easier. The coming together of these navies also provides India with a strong backing against China.
Tensions between India and China don’t seem to be reducing in the near future. However, all eyes do remain on the relationship of two of the fastest growing and powerful countries of Asia. These questions remain: Will China get intimidated by this display or will it get provoked to take action? Will diplomatic talks aid the situation or will the border dispute escalate into something more? Only time will tell.