Exercise Malabar is underway again, and for the first time being conducted off the coast of Australia. This year, the Indo-Pacific military drills will include the navies of Australia, India, Japan and the United States – the nations that comprise the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – but, officially, the exercise is a separate endeavour from the group, and should continue to be viewed as such.
Australia’s hosting is significant given its complicated history with both the Quad and Malabar in particular. The importance of Australia’s relationship (and capital-A alliance) with the United States was given top billing in the recent Defence Strategic Review, closely followed by a desire for Australia to deepen “...its relationships and practical cooperation with key powers, including Japan and India”. Clearly, enhancing interoperability with the other Quad nations is a priority for Australia as its defence posture pivots further towards the maritime.
But the Quad is not a grouping focused on the projection or refinement of its members’ hard power assets. Nor is it likely to become one. Since it was resuscitated, the Quad has focused on responding to Indo-Pacific problems at the local level. It has also shown a reluctance to focus on military issues as it assures a region largely wary about initiatives aimed at “containing” or countering the ambitions of China – a fire lit and fuelled by Beijing’s propaganda – of its utility and purpose.
What is the Quad’s purpose, though? It has most accurately been positioned as a provider of public goods aiming predominantly to safeguard and strengthen the autonomy of the Indo-Pacific nations. In a region defined by hedging states – the same states that the Quad looks to cooperate with – this seems sensible and as if it will give the Quad and its influence longevity. To be sure, in doing this, the Quad nations are indirectly buttressing their individual credentials as key pillars of a regional architecture that works for all – or at least most – not just a few. Malabar, too, does the latter but is explicitly about hard power and increasing interoperability between Quad nations.
There is some crossover between the two beyond the nationalities of their participants. The Quad’s Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, launched in 2022, represents the greatest intersection. But with a focus on “humanitarian and natural disasters, and combat[ting] illegal fishing”, it is still a far cry from, for example, anti-submarine warfare drills facilitated through Malabar.
If the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical temperature continues to rise, there is a chance that Malabar and the Quad will become more conflated. As the Quad’s influence and utility stems from its intentional positioning as a regional standard-setter, autonomy strengthening, and public goods provider, this should be resisted as it gives regional states hostile to the Quad – predominantly China – ammunition to weave webs of disinformation around the group’s purpose. The nations of Southeast Asia, originally mainly hostile to the Quad, have started warming to the group.
The Quad nations have successfully pursued and strengthened their security relationships with one another and other Indo-Pacific powers outside of the group. As far as Australia and the United States are concerned, the AUKUS agreement is facilitating their next-generation capabilities. Japan has entered into a “quasi-alliance” with the United Kingdom through the signing of the Hiroshima Accord and a Reciprocal Access Agreement, and India continues to juggle relationships and their expansion carefully while finding common ground. It is easy to call Malabar the Quad’s de facto military exercise or connect it to the group. But minilaterals looking to navigate the Indo-Pacific’s choppy geopolitical waters need not be given a harder edge – even if only perceived – to have influence and further the interests of their members.