India and the US will explore the possibility of expanding the annual trilateral Malabar naval exercise when the visiting Defence Secretary James Mattis meets Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday. The idea of a quadrilateral arrangement between India, US, Japan and Australia has been around for a while but that is expected to get a push at the highest level now in the wake of an assertive China in the neighbourhood.
“The new US administration is keen to induct new members as part of the exercise… and the issue is on the table for tomorrow’s meeting,” a source told The Indian Express. Some preliminary discussions took place during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in June when he met US President Donald Trump.
Sources told The Indian Express that the two sides will discuss the possibility of inducting new members in the exercise, and Australia and Singapore are likely contenders.
Mattis, who is the first cabinet-level member from the Trump administration to come to India is expected to articulate “common concerns and interests” in the region, especially those involving Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The visiting US secretary of defence will emphasise that the US views India as a valued and influential partner with broad mutual interests extending well beyond South Asia, a US government statement had said on Friday.
The Malabar naval exercises have evolved from a Indo-US naval exercise into a strong display of geopolitical force joining the Indo-Pacific’s three most powerful democracies.
After Japan joined as a permanent participant in 2015, the exercise has received attention — in the face of an assertive Chinese military deployment in Indo-Pacific region.
There has been regular discussion of Australia participating in Malabar with Delhi since at least 2015. Earlier this year, Australian defence minister Marisa Payne publicly reaffirmed that Canberra was “very interested” in a quadrilateral engagement with India, the US and Japan. Despite Canberra’s keenness, India has declined Australia’s request to join Malabar 2017.
In 2004, the navies of Australia, India, Japan, and the US collaborated during the December 2004 tsunami and the four countries had coordinated humanitarian relief efforts under the auspices of the ‘Regional Core Group.’