In the series of events that is unfolding in the Indo-Pacific region, one very remarkable event was “phase 1” (from November 3-6 this year) in the latest Malabar international naval exercises, which are most often (but not always) held in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.
This time, the format for the Malabar exercises, and the issue of whether it would take place, began to be discussed long before they began, and were closely linked with the project of creating a regional military and political association dubbed Quad. Its core is a “Quadrilateral” of countries that includes the United States, Japan, India and Australia, whose foreign ministers held a “direct” meeting in Tokyo on October 6. In the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, that is rather an exception to the rule – and once again testifies to the importance of this project for the countries that are participating. If it is successfully implemented (which is by no means guaranteed as of now), the Quad will undoubtedly introduce radical changes to how the regional game develops.
It was the context of the prospects for the Quad project that imparted special meaning to the current Malabar exercises. Their brief history was previously recounted in NEO by virtue of the information that appeared in the media space on July 10 this year about possibly inviting Australia to take part in them. However, they started talking about this possibility a month before, and that had to do with the video summit between the prime ministers of India and Australia that was held on June 4, during which several documents were signed on developing bilateral cooperation, including in the area of defense. At the same time, meaning at the beginning of June, the topic of the Quad association went beyond the scope of speculation about political science and into the area of the specific actions that are anticipated in the near future. The first of those was the meeting in Tokyo that was mentioned.
It is worth noting that Australia has already taken part once in the Malabar exercises, which initially involved (staring in 1992) America and India. That was in 2007, when US Secretary of Defense R0bert Gates put forward the idea of forming the very “Quad” – and this was supported by Australia’s right-wing conservative government. Shinzo Abe, who was the Prime Minister of Japan (for the first time) back then, also lent his support the project. In that same year 2007, all four participants of the (hypothetical) Quad plus Singapore took part in the Malabar exercises that were scheduled.
However, due to internal political changes in Australia and Japan, these exercises once again, and for a long time afterwards, took the shape of their original bilateral (American-Indian) format. Japan rejoined them in 2013, when Shinzo Abe headed the country’s cabinet for the second time, and Australia joined them again at the end of 2020.
It is worth underscoring again that these “full-scale” Malabar exercises are anything but a clearly defined phenomenon. It fits into the overall context of the (negative) development of the political and strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific region, and the groundwork was laid by a number of recent events in the areas of both politics and defense.
The video conference between the prime ministers of India and Australia was mentioned above. It is also worth noting the meetings conducted in the “2+2” format that took place between Australia and the US, as well as India and the US. On October 19 in Tokyo, there were talks held between the ministers of defense from Japan and Australia, following which a joint statement was made. A visit to Japan by the Australian Prime Minister is scheduled for the middle of November.
The “military” component also did not lag far behind in terms of the pace of its development. The author will only point out the joint exercises with the Australian and Indian naval destroyers (one from each side), which was held at the end of September in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean in the Passage Exercise (PASSECS) format, meaning as if it was accidental, and without any preliminary planning. Before that, in early July, the US and Indian aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and INS Vikramaditya, respectively, practiced in that same PASSECS format.
Once again, one should point to the motivation behind all the abovementioned events and projects. It is almost entirely due to the fact that the PRC is becoming the second global power. To put it more precisely, this fact is perceived by many countries in the region as the source of certain threats; those, however, are unlikely to lend themselves to any kind of rational definition.
In “realpolitik”, however, people need to operate on the basis of what exists. And what “exists”, unfortunately, is precisely that “perception” indicated. As a result, in particular, there are now attempts being made to find new candidates to join the as yet non-existent Quad. And that is what US Secretary of State M. Pompeo became involved in at the end of October during a tour throughout a number of countries in the region.
But the author continues to be surprised by the increasingly conspicuous activity in the region, and in some leading European countries. What on Earth are they doing there? However, France and the UK genuinely do have something to remember…
But the interest in the region’s political problems that Germany is beginning to show is not very understandable at all. China called attention to the interview given by German Federal Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (who is often considered as Angela Merkel’s successor to be the country’s head of state) on November 2 to the Australian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald. The central focus of the interview was the assertion about the need to “indicate the position taken by Germany concerning the region”. Specifically for this purpose liaison officers will be sent to the headquarters of the Australian Navy, and a German frigate will be sent to the region.
Isn’t the “position” outlined by A. Kramp-Karrenbauer a continuation of the trend that took shape long ago to restrict the extent of Chinese penetration into the economics of leading EU countries, and chiefly Germany? Incidentally, the entire array of long-standing complaints lodged by Germany against China in the field of trade (the “aggressive appropriation of intellectual property, violating the conditions of fair competition, inequality in mutual investments”) resounded during this interview. Mrs. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also spoke out in favor of Germany joining the US sanctions against the Chinese IT giant Huawei.
Basically, against the backdrop of a picture of what is happening in the Indo-Pacific region that is not cheerful on the whole, “phase 1” of the latest Mallabar exercises began. “Phase 2” will take place in the end of November.
But nevertheless it is quite possible that glimpses of hope will arise in this picture, and this will become a symbol of the process of the political clouds starting to backslide. It should be pointed out first how the new Japanese government intends to preserve the positive component present in Japanese relations with China that was outlined during the final stage of Abe’s premiership. This is attested to by the telephone conversation the Chinese leader had with the new Prime Minister of Japan, the content of the interview given by the Chinese Ambassador to the Japanese publication The Asahi Shimbun, and the possibility of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi making a visit to Japan.
It seems futile for Australia to follow the US anti-Chinese course for any length of time. The policy adopted by the Scott Morrison government towards China is taking on a masochistic character, since it exacerbates relations with the country’s main economic partner.
However, the United States itself has charted out a course that entails consequences that are not any less negative. Therefore, it is quite possible that there will be positive shifts in policy toward China on the part of the new American administration (regardless of who becomes the next president). Nowadays, these negative factors that are mentioned are chiefly associated with the persona of the current Secretary of State.
So far, the situation in relations between the PRC and India looks even more gloomy. But that will inevitably make similar headway, if any is observed in the relations between PRC and the three other participants in the Quad.
As far as Russia goes, to resolve the issue of developing the land mass that lies east of the Urals, which is acquiring key significance for it, it is vital to help defuse tensions in the Indo-Pacific region in every possible way.
The Malabar exercises are going on far away from the Russian Federation and Europe. But all the superfluity that goes along with them substantiates how tightly interwoven events are in various areas of the world.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.