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'Quad' nations flaunt stronger ties with first drill in 13 years

China tensions spur cooperation between Japan, US, India and Australia

A U.S. guided-missile destroyer, an Indian tanker and an Australian frigate participate in the Malabar joint naval exercise. (Photo via the U.S. Navy)

TOKYO -- Japan, the U.S., India and Australia wrapped up their first four-way joint military exercise in more than a decade on Friday, reinforcing the security partnership among the grouping known as the "Quad" amid shared alarm over China's growing influence in the region.

The annual India-led Malabar exercise, which usually involves Japan and the U.S., was expanded this year to include Australia as well. After this week's four-day drill -- which included a destroyer from Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force, a U.S. Navy destroyer and an Australian Defense Force frigate -- a second phase will take place later this month in the Arabian Sea.

The exercise included anti-submarine and surface-firing drills as well as at-sea resupply operations.

The exercise was "very successful," Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters, adding that the event "embodied [the idea of] a free and open Indo-Pacific."

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has "been striving to strengthen its partnership with the navies of friendly nations through maritime exercises such as Malabar to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific," Takahiko Ishidera, commanding officer of the destroyer JS Onami, said ahead of the exercise.

"This year, it is our great pleasure that we have the opportunity to conduct the exercise with the Royal Australian Navy, in addition to the United States Navy and the Indian Navy," he said. "Despite the global COVID-19 spread, I believe Malabar 2020 will make our ties with these navies much stronger."

Besides the practical benefits, the Malabar exercise carries significance as a symbol of cooperation among the four countries, which have forged closer security ties both as the Quad and in individual bilateral and trilateral groupings.

Japan's Self-Defense Forces, for example, have been holding more frequent drills with countries besides the U.S., Tokyo's sole ally.

Until 2017, its most frequent non-U.S. partner was Australia. The two countries held bilateral drills or three-way exercises including Washington five times a year between 2013 and 2015 and eight times in 2016, mainly with an eye toward North Korea.

But the dynamics in the region shifted after the 2018 summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and the Japan-Australia exercises dropped off as Washington shifted toward dialogue with Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, Japan has been partnering more with India. The two conducted six exercises together, either bilaterally or with the U.S., in 2018 and seven in 2019, more than the Japan-Australia total in those years.

Cooperation between Tokyo and New Delhi started ramping up around 2016, about the same time that Japan introduced its "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategy. The two countries and the U.S. banded together to counter China -- Washington because of the trade war, Tokyo because of China's incursions around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, and New Delhi because of a military clash over a disputed border in the Himalayas.

Australia had kept its distance out of consideration for its economic relationship with China. But relations between Canberra and Beijing have soured since Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's call for an independent investigation into the coronavirus pandemic. This led to Canberra's participation in the Malabar exercise, marking the Quad's first four-way drill in 13 years.

High-level diplomacy within the Quad has signaled closer ties as well. Each pair of countries in the grouping has held summits or "two-plus-two" meetings of top defense officials and diplomats in the past year.

Japan and Australia began working last month on a framework for SDF forces to protect Australian Defense Force assets. Japan and India signed a reciprocal military logistics agreement in September, and Australia and India have inked a similar deal.

This progress contrasts with the stagnation of the defense partnership among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea, which have not held a three-way joint exercise together since 2018.

This owes partly to South Korea's more conciliatory approach to the North since then, as well as to the fraying relationship between Seoul and Tokyo. South Korea has announced plans to withdraw from an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, though it has yet to do so.

Japanese national security adviser Shigeru Kitamura spoke with counterparts Robert O'Brien of the U.S. and Suh Hoon of South Korea by videoconference Friday, likely to discuss the situation in East Asia with the results of the U.S. presidential election still up in the air.

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