The QUAD Navies Exercise for the Second Time
Amruta Karambelkar

In the 2021 edition of the Exercise Malabar, the navies of India, US, Japan and Australia came together during 26-29 August for the sea phase. This year makes the second year when Ex. Malabar was conducted in its expanded form. Nowhere is it being officially termed as the QUAD naval exercise, but semantics rarely obliterate the strategy. Last year’s edition of the Malabar saw Australia’s participation, in what was a predictable course of action for Canberra and New Delhi in the light of events in 2020 with respect to China. The foundation of the Quad is now set. Due to the developments in Afghanistan, this edition of the Malabar has not gained as much media glare as it normally would. Nonetheless, its importance is discernible to the observers.

The quadrilateral version of the Ex. Malabar needs to be examined from another important development with respect to the Indian and Australian navies. On 18 August 2021, the Indian Navy and the Royal Australian Navy signed a document to boost naval ties. Titled ‘The Joint Guidance for the Australia-India Navy to Navy Relationship,' the document formalises deeper relationship between the two Indo-Pacific navies. Both the navies would deepen their cooperation in various regional and multilateral fora such as the IONS, WPNS, IORA and ADMM+. As per the Indian Navy’s press release1

“The document is aligned to the 2020 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreed to by the Prime Ministers and aims to ensure shared approach to regional and global security challenges. The Joint Guidance would serve as a guideline document to showcase the intent of both the Navies to work together bi/multi-laterally. The broad scope of the guidance is focussed on developing mutual understanding, cooperate for regional security, and collaborate in mutually beneficial activities and to develop interoperability.”

The significance of this bilateral agreement for the QUAD is that it strengthens what is the weakest link in the grouping-the naval cooperation between India and Australia. India and US have been conducting exercises since 1992 under the Malabar and also bilaterally, one being as recent as in June 2021 in the eastern Indian Ocean. The India-US security relationship has strengthened over a period of several years and has reached to a level where it has become a matter of fact. Indian Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) have been conducting a series of bilateral exercise named JIMEX since January 2012. JMSDF joined Ex. Malabar as a permanent member in 2015.2 In the 2020 edition of the JIMEX, both sides demonstrated high level of inter-operability, consequent of gradual increase in complexity3 over the decade. Both Japan and Australia are US allies hence a deep security relationship already exists amongst the three. Whereas India and Australia begun to work bilaterally on security only since 2014 when both countries signed the ‘Framework for Security Cooperation’4 during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Australia. The first bilateral naval exercise between Indian navy and Australian navy, named AUSINDEX took place in 2015 in Visakhapatnam, the second was in 2017 in Fremantle.5 So, the naval relations between India and Australia are relatively nascent, but with conscious bilateral effort, it is aimed to strengthen, as evinced by the signing of the joint guidance document. Hence, along with progression of the naval component of the Quad, an effort at strengthening all the cogs is also seen within the Quad.

Malabar-21 was conducted in the Philippines Sea. On 23 August, just three days prior to the Malabar-21, INS Ranvijay and INS Kora carried out an exercise with BRP Antonio Luna in the West Philippines Sea.6 An Indian naval task force, from the Eastern Naval Command had set sail since early August for a two-month long deployment to the South China Sea, East Asia and the Western Pacific. The task force consists of four warships-INS Ranvijay, the guided-missile destroyer, INS Shivalik, the guided-missile frigate, INS Kadmatt, the anti-submarine corvette, and guided-missile corvette, INS Kora.7 Indian naval ships paid a visit to Brunei, and delivered supplies to Jakarta. The Indian navy would be conducting bilateral exercises with Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia and Australia. The operational deployment is in tune with India’s Act East Policy, and SAGAR.8

For the JMSDF, Malabar-21 was the first opportunity to participate in a large-scale exercise, and which ‘embodied the strong unity of the Japan-U.S.-India-Australia (commonly known as the “Quad”).9 The statements from the host, the USN expressed the objective in enhancing war fighting (Naval Special Warfare), maritime skillsets, and integration with regional naval forces. Further,

“U.S. Destroyers closely integrating with our partners and allies builds the foundation for regional security and stability that benefits all Indo-Pacific nations.”10

Focus on ASW

Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) has been a common facet during naval exercises in the Malabar, as well as during bilateral naval drills amongst the four quad navies. This signifies the importance of this common component to all the four. During the phase one of the previous edition, naval helicopters from the four members were involved.11 While during the second phase, fighter jets of India (MiG 29K) and US (F/A 18 and E2C Hawkeye) conducted complex drills from their respective carriers, and the helicopters from Japan and Australia supported12. The goal at this point in time appears to be on components that are common to all the four navies, therefore naturally, the focus seems on strengthening common maritime operations (sub-surface and air operations)-that is the ASW. There will be a phase-2 of the Malabar-21, but no details are known as yet.

QUAD-led Maritime order in the Indo-Pacific

Last year when the Quad navies came together for Ex. Malabar, it was conducted in the Arabian Sea and in the Bay of Bengal. This year it has been conducted in the Pacific Ocean. Broadly, this reinforces the maritime geography of the Indo-Pacific and where the Quad naval focus will remain. But the larger focus will be from across the eastern seaboard of India into the Pacific Ocean.

The Quad, in its previous joint statement had mentioned ASEAN centrality. It is a reality that support from Southeast Asia is crucial for furthering Quad’s objectives. Hence, efforts at creating networks, and integration to various degrees can be expected. In this, the most likely supporters were always going to be Vietnam and Singapore, and of course the Philippines. The developments in the last few weeks demonstrate a pattern wherein the Quad members would build upon their existing ties in Southeast Asia, and eventually (or hoping to) create a network. In this endeavour, the approach is likely to be more of coordination and gradual confidence-building.

There is no reason to dismiss that regional countries would not be on board. The US administration’s strategy in Southeast Asia is clear about its priority to security over economics. To discard the Quad or US’s security mechanisms is tantamount to bandwagoning with China on security-which is not a preferred choice for Southeast Asia. There is hardly any other policy choice. (Given ASEAN’s weakness)

More importantly, the Quad is the only grouping that can influence regional maritime order (the CoC on the South China Sea for instance), and this seems the priority area for the four countries. Ensuring freedom of navigation and security of the SLOCS is the first step to this end. The oft-heard ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ is shaping up. The grouping, on the expected lines; will undertake post-modern naval operations in the Indo-Pacific.


A day after the phase one of MALABAR-21 was concluded, China announced ‘new rules’ about passage of foreign ships in its ‘territorial waters’ effective from1st of September 2021. China is invoking its 1992 Law on Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone. Effectively it may mean no rights to innocent passage to foreign warships, but could also impede commercial shipping. Questions arise over implementation of the decree; hence this promulgation is a reaction to the Quad naval exercise given its timing. But it is highly possible that China is upping the ante.

China will continue to assert its claims based on its domestic maritime laws, and the Quad will challenge such claims on the basis of international law.

  1. ‘Joint Guidance for the Australia – India Navy to Navy Relationship’ signed between Indian Navy and Australian Navy, Indian Navy,‘joint-guidance-australia-–-india-navy-navy-relationship’-signed-between-indian-navy-and [Accessed 29 August 2021]
  2. The Indian Navy is participating in the sea phase of Exercise Malabar 2021, Times of India, 26 August 2021. The Indian Navy is participating in the sea phase of Exercise Malabar 2021
    [Accessed 29 August 2021]
  3. Bilateral Maritime Exercise Between Japan and India (JIMEX 20) to Commence off West Coast of India, Ministry of Defence, Press Information Bureau, 25 September 2020. [Accessed 29 August 2021]
  4. Framework for Security Cooperation between Australia and India 2014, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government 18 November 2014, [Accessed 29 August 2021]
  5. Karambelkar, Amruta (2019), ‘Exercise AUSINDEX-2019: A New High in India Australia Defence Cooperation’, Vivekananda International Foundation, [Accessed 29 August 2019]
  6. Bhalla, Abhishek,’Indian Navy’s INS Ranvijay, INS Kora carry out maritime exercise with Philippines,’ India Today, 24 August 2021. [Accessed 30 August 2021]
  7. ‘Navy set to deploy 4 warships in South China sea for 2 months,’ The Economic Times, 4 August 2021. [Accessed 30 August 2021
  8. Press release, ‘Eastern Fleet Ships on Overseas Operational Deployment’, Indian Navy, Eastern Fleet Ships on Overseas Operational Deployment, [Accessed 30 August 2021]
  9. ‘IPD21 force conducted the multi-lateral training “MALABAR2021’, Ministry of Defense, Japan. [Accessed 30 August 2021]
  10. Quoting Capt. Chase Sargent, commander CTF-71 in ‘Australia, India, Japan, and U.S. Kick-Off Exercise MALABAR 2021’, US Embassy and Consulates in India, [Accessed 30 August 2021]
  11. Exercise MALABAR 2020 Concludes in Arabian Sea, Indian Navy, [Accessed 29 August 2021]
  12. Ibid.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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