Naval forces from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States participated in Malabar 2021 during the last week of August, giving the nations’ forces a chance to further develop cohesion in planning, training, and the employment of advanced warfare techniques.
Malabar is an annual military exercise that began as a joint initiative between the United States and India in 1992. Since then, the exercise has evolved considerably with ongoing developments in international relations and has seen other nations get involved at various points in time.
This year marked the second year in a row in which all four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, colloquially known as the Quad, participated.
The exercise also demonstrated the commitment of diverse members of the international community to uphold a rules-based international order in the face of increased adventurism and economic aggression by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Experts believe that Malabar, and the Quad more broadly, could present a valuable opportunity to coordinate international strategy against the malign influence of the CCP both in the Indo-Pacific and globally.
A Systemic Rivalry
Chad Sbragia, a research analyst for the Intelligence Analyses Division of the Institute for Defense Analyses, spoke to the Epoch Times about the pervasiveness of the CCPs influence and how that influence informs exercises like Malabar.
According to Sbragia, the CCP’s efforts in global diplomacy, politics, and military affairs are vast enough that any exercise will necessarily be conducted within the context of potential conflict with China. As such, although Malabar was not designed specifically to be about China in any way, its strategic value acquired a Sino-centric valence due to what Sbragia termed a “systemic rivalry.”
“There is a rivalry between two different visions for the international system,” Sbragia said. “Most [military] exercises are not specifically about China, but they’re certainly in the context of that systemic rivalry and it’s hard to separate them at this point.”
“‘Strategic competition’ makes it sound much more like it’s a bilateral issue between the United States and China,” Sbragia said. “Certainly, in many ways it is. But there’s a bigger picture at stake, which is the system that virtually all of the countries in the world have bought into, helped build, contributed to, lean on and continue to leverage.”
It is that system itself, a rules-based international order, that is at stake in the competition between the CCP and the international community.
Considering this, Sbragia noted that the CCP’s cooperation with other nations was different in form and substance from that of the United States and its allies. Whereas the United States seeks to develop capabilities multilaterally that allow allies to efficiently work together as one unit, the CCP seeks influence and control in its relationships, and spurns traditional alliance structures.
“Their view is that absolute sovereignty is absolute,” Sbragia said.
“The reputation that they are seeking is not necessarily to be well-loved,” Sbragia added, “but to be respected and followed.”
As such, the very structure and goals of exercises like Malabar are emblematic of the great struggle between competing visions of a rules-based order and a disparate grouping of supremely sovereign states.
Sbragia hoped that ultimately, the people of the United States and its partner nations would realize the global scale of the threat posed by the CCP before it was too late; and would work quickly to counter the CCP’s plans to supplant the United States and be a global hegemon by 2049.
“The Chinese do have a long-term plan and vision for what they expect and hope to transform both the region and the globe into,” Sbragia said. “Chinese aspirations are not just limited to the region. Their aspirations are global.”
“The things that you’re seeing now, 100 nautical miles off of China, you will see 100 nautical miles off of Europe and West Africa and the Caribbean and other locations globally in not too long a period of time.”
A Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Alexander Gray, a senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, spoke to the importance of the Quad in mitigating the worst of the CCP’s excesses and promoting a more stable and prosperous future. Like Sbragia, he noted the ideological tint coloring the struggles between the CCP and the rest of the globe.
“There’s no question that at least part of the competition with China that the United States and its partners and allies are facing is an ideologically-tinged struggle, Gray said.
“Part of the ideological challenge comes down to [the fact that] the Chinese Communist Party’s conception of how the world order operates is very, very different than anything either party in the United States would ever subscribe to.”
Gray hailed the development of the concept of “a free and open Indo-Pacific” as one of few success stories of policy continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations, and noted that it offered a vital countervision to the statist philosophy of the CCP.
“I think it’s a success story and a reaction to the individual experiences of each of the Quad nations with China,” Gray said. “The Quad is now seen as a very useful tool in doing a variety of different countermoves to Chinese ambitions.”
The necessity of a free and open Indo-Pacific has become more pressing for many countries in the region as the CCP has continued to increase its military activity in the South China Sea, where it has taken to constructing new military outposts on artificial islands it has created for the purposes of expanding its territorial claims into international waters. This, despite the fact that an international tribunal found that China held no claim to the waterways.
Although there have been efforts to formalize the Quad, it remains an unofficial alliance.
Gray noted that there was also a desire in Washington to utilize the Quad more creatively, and said that the Quad could still be an invaluable tool for pursuing common good projects, such as, dealing with search and rescue, environmental spills, rising sea levels, and issues of economic security, particularly in the face of the CCP’s continued campaigns of economic coercion.
Such a capacity has become increasingly necessary as the CCP attempts to pressure other nations through economic means, according to Gray. Beijing, for instance, has issued numerous sanctions and tariffs on Australian goods as a punishment for Australia’s call to investigate the origins of the CCP Virus.
“That economic coercion is the greatest threat to the existing order,” Gray said. “It’s not anti-access weapons, it’s not space capabilities or fielding more submarines. The long-term threat to the stability of the region and to our ability to project power is China using its size to economically coerce smaller countries.”
Gray hopes that the Quad could serve as a unified mechanism for coordinating nations in buying products that the Chinese are boycotting or leveraging for political purposes. The Quad’s commitment to interoperability and multilateralism presents hard evidence of the differences in ideology between the CCP and the United States and its allies, he added.
To that end, Gray said that the CCP lacked the same multilateral capabilities as the United States and its allies because it does not adhere to the same alliance structure as the United States.
“It says a lot about the competition itself,” Gray said. “The Chinese are not focused on [interoperability] because their conception of the international order is them operating above all the other countries in the system and dictating.”
“That’s their strategic culture: They dictate outcomes,” Gray added. “We are focused on interoperability because that’s the military reflection of what the free and open Indo-Pacific concept is all about.”
Given these competing visions of the proper ordering of global relations, Gray said that the United States’ continued pursuit of multilateral exercises presented the best evidence of its hopes for the future of the Indo-Pacific.
“It’s about the United States, regardless of its military and economic dominance, operating under the same set of rules and norms as the rest of the region,” Gray said.