Malabar 2023: Reinforcing Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific
Prof Rajaram Panda

The 27th edition of the Malabar series of maritime exercises, which started in 1992 as a bilateral exercises between the Indian Navy and the US Navy evolved over the years into a symbol of cooperative maritime security between the four Quad countries consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia and thus the premier quadrilateral training event in the security calendar of the Indo-Pacific region. The latest quadrilateral naval exercise between the navies of the four Quad countries was particularly remarkable as it marked the first time the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) assumed the role of host. While Malabar 2020, three years ago, witnessed the maiden participation of the RAN, Japan joined the Naval Exercises in 2015. At present Malabar have four Quad countries as participants. There are no plans or discussions on its expansion at the moment, though there could be some aspirant countries.

It may be recalled that when the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited India in March 2023, he announced his country will host Exercise Malabar. That time, Albanese was received onboard INS Vikrant by Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar with a Guard of Honour. Albanese admitted his visit reflected his government’s commitment to place India at the heart of Australia’s approach to the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

The 10-day exercise from 11 to 21 August 2023 was divided into two phases that included a harbour phase at Sydney followed by sea exercises. The first phase, known as the Harbour Phase, involved navy-to-navy activities such as cross-deck visits, professional exchanges, sports fixtures and interactions for planning and conducting the Sea Phase. The Sea Phase brought real security value to the exercise and included complex and high-intensity exercises in all three domains of warfare – anti-surface, anti-submarine and anti-air exercises, including live weapon firing drills.[1]

The exercise was designed to deepen the partnership for the Indo-Pacific, for shared aspiration, for a free, open and resilient Indo-Pacific and it was followed immediately afterwards by AUSINDEX, the bi-annual naval exercise between India and Australia. The aim of the Malabar exercises was to provide an opportunity to the four quadrilateral navies to enhance and demonstrate interoperability and to learn each others’ best practices in maritime security operations amid China’s growing assertive moves in the Indo-Pacific region.

Both India and Australia have seen an exponential increase in defence cooperation, in which naval exercises are an important component. Frequent and more complex exercises are symbols of aspirations to secure a free and peaceful Indo-Pacific. The small size of the warships that participated in the 2023 Malabar exercises need to be examined in the context of what those ships were and what those men and women inside those ships and aircrafts performed together.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in November 2014, both sides had decided to extend defence cooperation to cover research, development and industry engagement and agreed to hold regular meetings at the level of the Defence Ministers and conduct regular maritime exercises besides holding regular service-to-service talks. Subsequently, the fourth edition of AUSINDEX was held during 7-10 September 2021 in Australia off Darwin. Navies of India, Australia, Japan and the USA also participated in Phase I of Exercise Malabar 2021, from August 26 to 29, 2021 off Guam and in Phase II in the Bay of Bengal from October 12 to 15, 2021.[2]

While Australia fielded two warships – Bay-class landing ship HMAS Choules and destroyer HMAS Brisbane, India deployed two indigenously-built warships – multi-mission frigate INS Sahyadri and guided missile destroyer INS Kolkata. These two warships have been built by Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai and are fitted with a state-of-the-art array of modern weapons and sensors to detect and neutralise threats in surface, air and underwater domains. An Indian Navy P-81 submarine hunter plane, a long-range maritime patrol aircraft also took part in the Malabar combat manoeuvres during the exercises. While INS Sahyadri was led by Captain Rajan Kapoor INS Kolkata was commanded by Captain Sharad Sinsunwal. These two vessels showcased India’s dedication to enhancing its naval capabilities.[3]

The US and Japan sent one warship each for the exercise. Among the total six vessels that participated, Japan deployed destroyer JS Shiranui (DD-120), part of the 1st Surface Unit of the JMSDF’s Indo Pacific Deployment 2023 (IPD23) mission, long with a special boarding unit of the JMSDF. The US deployed destroyer USS Rafael Peralta (DDG-115), fleet oiler USNS Rappahannock (T-AO-204), a submarine, P-9A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), and special operations forces.[4] Except for Japan, the other three have also deployed aircraft for the exercise.[5] Unlike in the past, the number of warships participating in the exercise in 2023 was less and there was no submarine or aircraft carrier of any country that participated in the exercise.[6]

China has a host of issues with many countries in the region. The region has seen China’s expansionist rhetoric and muscle-flexing against a democratic Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province and must be integrated with the mainland, if necessary by the use of force. India too faces a belligerent China on its land border with sporadic military confrontation that has prevented any positive outcome despite military talks between the two sides.

India and China have remained locked in a stand-off over border issue for more than three years but no tangible outcome has been possible. The Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army held the 19th round of military talks in mid-August 2023 to ease tensions along the contested Line of Actual of Control (LAC). The 18th round of military dialogue was held on 23 April 2023. This too did not yield any significant breakthrough. India cannot afford to loosen its position and even deployed two China-specific mountain strike corps as a contingency to secure its 3,488 km LAC, be it eastern Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh.[7]

In the earlier edition, complex drills under the Malabar banner were carried out in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

China’s Reactions

From the beginning since the Malabar was launched, China has viewed Quad as an inimical grouping. In August 2007, when former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo floated the idea of Quad in his address to the Indian Parliament, China conveyed its displeasure and demanded to know whom the grouping was directed against. That position of China has remained consistent till now. After remaining dormant till 2012 when the Quad concept was revived and gathered speed, and Malabar added as a new dimension, China’s opposition became fiercer. The truism is that though China has been suspicious about the purpose of the Malabar exercises and feels that its aim is to contain its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, the exercise is not directed against at any country. Quad is not a military or the defence arm of the grouping. When the US, UK and Australia announced the formation of a new trilateral grouping called Aukus, China did not receive even this kindly. China even responded to the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit held at Camp David on 18 August as a move by the three countries to form a mini-NATO aimed at China. This being said, there is no denying that the quadrilateral Malabar framework for security cooperation is a move to counterbalance to China’s increasing maritime activities in the Indo-Pacific.

The four Quad members do recognise that the Indo Pacific region has been subject to significantly enhanced strategic competition and therefore the four partners participating in the exercise are determined to see greater strategic equilibrium and their purpose is to make sure that there is some concrete action beyond the words and talks. Dismissing China’s concern, the grouping has maintained that it is not intended ‘against China’. In March 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also remarked that Quad is not a military grouping, adding that it is engaged in working together to help countries to deal with humanitarian situations in natural disasters.

Since India and China are currently engaged in Corps Commanders’ talks on the border issue, India’s participation this time was rather low-key as it preferred some restraint and deployed only two warships to take part. In contrast, in Malabar 2007, 26 warships from the four Quad countries, including eight vessels from India had taken part. By deploying only two warships in the latest edition, India was conveying its ability to build warships indigenously as both INS Sahyadri (Project-17-class, multi-role, stealth frigate) and INS Kolkata (guided missile destroyer of the Project-15-15A class) were India’s pride.

What set Malabar 2023 apart was its role in sharing the best practices in maritime security operations. This exercise goes beyond typical military collaboration, delving into the realm of strategic camaraderie. The experiences and insights gained during this event undoubtedly contribute to a more robust maritime environment, enhancing regional stability and security. The grand showcasing of naval synergy exemplifies the four nations’ unwavering commitment to upholding the ideals of peace, security, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.[8] The long-term objective of the Malabar exercises is to secure a safer future and help maintain a rules-based maritime order in accordance with global laws.

In a related development event when Malabar was about to complete the exercise on 21 August, a Scorpene type Indian submarine INS Vagir, which was on an extended-range deployment, reached Fremantle, Australia, on 20 August 2023 to participate in various exercises with RAN units. While the Malabar exercises took place on the East Coast of Australia, AUSINDEX 23 was on the West Coast of Australia from 22-24 August. According to the Indian Navy press release, this was a historic first.[9] INS Vagir is the Indian Navy’s fifth Kalvari class submarine, commissioned into the Indian Navy in January 2023, and is based on Mumbai.

During the deployment, basic, intermediate and advanced-level Anti-Submarine exercises between the Indian Navy and RAN took place, thereby further augmenting the cooperation and synergy between the two. Since it was the maiden deployment of INS Vagir to Australia, it showcased the capability and professional acumen of the Indian Navy to undertake sustained operations at extended range from the base port for prolonged durations. During the deployment, INS Vagir also visited Colombo as part of the International Yoga Day on 21 June 2023.

INS Vagir’s participation with the RAN in conducting joint exercises added a new dimension to secure maritime security. Earlier, an IAF C-130J and an Indian Navy Do-228 were deployed at Australia’s Cocos Islands for close to a week in July. Indian Navy P081 aircraft have been frequently deployed to Australia for joint operations.

As a part of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, conducting submarine operations and naval exercises with like-minded maritime partners are important parts of maritime security. For example, Oman has hosted multiple Indian submarines since 2017, including INS Vela in March 2023. Also, INS Sindukesari docked at Jakarta in February 2023, becoming the first ever visit by an Indian submarine to Indonesia. Sri Lanka also hosted INS Vagir prior to its continuous journey to Fremantle, Australia. The long distance operations by the Kalvari-class submarines demonstrate India’s capability to monitor the Straits of Sunda and Lombok, among others. The Strait of Malacca is the main and thus the critical waterway for vessels of many countries, including that of Chinese, transiting the Indian Ocean Region. But the Straits of Sunda and Lombok are often cited as alternatives routes, though commercially not viable because of increased transport an insurance costs.

It transpires therefore that maritime security is a critical element to the economic prosperity for all maritime nations. When a single nation chooses to take unilateral action and disregards global laws governing trade, it is inevitable that like-minded countries come together to ensure that their own economic and security interests are not adversely affected. The Malabar and other bilateral and trilateral naval operations by the countries in the Indo-Pacific region are designed as response to this.


[1]Ajai Shukla, “Australia to host Exercise Malabar for the first time from August 11-21”, 10 Aug 2023,
[2] “Australia to host latest edition of 10-day Malabar exercise for first time”, 7 August 2023,
[3] “MALABAR-2023: Showcasing unmatched naval cooperation in Sydney’s waters”, 10 August 2023,
[4]Prakash Nanda, “India Gets A Taste Of F-35 Stealth Fighter As It Joins US, Australia And Japan For QUAD Drills; No Mention Of China”, 13 August 2023,
[5] “Quad naval drill off Sydney this week”, Times of India, 8 August 2023.
[6]Mayank Singh, “Australia to host Quad’s Malabar drill for first time”, 8 August 2023,
[7] “More than enough’ troops deployed along LAC: Officials”, Times of India, 14 August 2023.
[8] “MALABAR-2023: Showcasing unmatched naval cooperation in Sydney’s waters”, 10 August 2023,
[9] “Historic First: Indian Navy Submarine Deploys To Australia”, 21 August 2023,

(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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