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Explained: The purpose, participants of the Malabar Navy Exercise

Malabar Navy Exercise: A look at what the exercise is about, and why it is particularly significant this year. 

Written by Krishn Kaushik | New Delhi |
Updated: November 3, 2020 7:41:35 am
Malabar Navy Exercise, Malabar Navy Exercise explained, What is Malabar Navy Exercise, Malabar Navy Exercise begins, Malabar Navy Exercise Australia, Indian ExpressLast year’s Malabar Exercise off the coast of Japan. (Source: Indian Navy)

Phase 1 of the Malabar Naval Exercise kicks off on Tuesday, with participation of Australian navy for the first time since 2007. A look at what the exercise is about, and why it is particularly significant this year.

What is Malabar Exercise?

It is a multilateral naval exercise that includes simulated war games and combat manoeuvres. It started in 1992 as a bilateral exercise between the Indian and US navies. Japan joined in 2015. This year the exercise will be held in two phases, the first from Tuesday off the coast near Visakhapatnam, and the second in the Arabian Sea in mid-November. Last year it was held in early September off the coast of Japan.

This year’s Malabar Exercise has been planned on a “non-contact-at sea” format keeping Covid-19 protocols in mind. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

What is the difference this year?

For the first time in over a decade, the exercise will see the participation of all four Quad countries. In a statement last month, the Defence Ministry had said that “as India seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy”.

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This will be the second time Australia will participate. In 2007, there were two Malabar Exercises. The first was held off Okinawa island of Japan in the Western Pacific — the first time the exercise was held away from Indian shores — and the second in September 2007, off Visakhapatnam, with the Indian, Japanese, US, Australian and Singapore navies.

The following year, Australia stopped participating. Japan became a regular participant only in 2015, making it a trilateral annual exercise since then.

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Why is Australia’s participation important?

On October 27, following the 2+2 dialogue with the US, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said: “We… agreed that upholding the rules-based international order, respecting the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the international seas and upholding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states are essential. Our defence cooperation is intended to further these objectives. Both sides welcomed Australia joining the forthcoming Malabar Exercise.”

As the standoff in eastern Ladakh continues, the participation of four large navies from the Indo-Pacific region will send a message to China. Sources have mentioned that earlier, it was the possibility of riling up China that had prevented India from expanding the Malabar Exercise, and from Australia joining it.

Rear Admiral Sudarshan Shrikhande, who retired in 2016 and had headed Naval intelligence earlier, and had served as the Defence Advisor at the Indian High Commission in Canberra (2005-08), said that “with the clearer enunciation of the Quad in recent foreign ministers’ meet in Japan, it would have been counterproductive to the objectives of statecraft not to invite Australia”. He said the Quad “must, among other things, contribute to being a key instrument of deterrence that is necessary keeping China in mind”. He said “the Quad need not be NATO in its formality, in its political congruence and as a post-war response” but it can “deter nonetheless”.

At a webinar on September 3, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat had said Quad is “a good arrangement”, which “will ensure, that the Indian Ocean Region and all other oceans around there is complete freedom of navigation, without fear of any other nation singularly trying to dominate the oceans”.

Does India conduct any other naval exercises with these countries?

Over the last few months, the Indian Navy has conducted a number of Passage Exercises (PASSEX) with navies from Japan, Australia and the US. But those were basic exercises to increase operability between the navies, while Malabar involves simulated war games. In late September, the Indian Navy conducted PASSEX with the Royal Australian Navy.

In July, India conducted a PASSEX with the US carrier strike group led by one of the largest warships in the world, USS Nimitz. The carrier strike group had been passing through the Indian Ocean Region after completing a freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea, which China is quite sensitive about. A similar exercise was conducted with Japan Maritime Self Defence Force in June.

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