NEW YORK -- The U.S. Navy is holding parallel exercises in the Philippine Sea and the Indian Ocean, involving the so-called "Quad" nations of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, in a move sure to catch the attention of Beijing.
On Tuesday, the Navy said that it had begun a trilateral exercise in the Philippine Sea with Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Australian Defense Force.
America's aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam and guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin were joined by Australia's Stuart and Arunta frigates, Hobart destroyer, Canberra landing helicopter dock ship, and Sirius fleet replenishment vessel, as well as Japan's Teruzuki destroyer.
The drill began Sunday, the day before the start of the U.S. and Indian navies' joint exercise in the Indian Ocean led by American aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.
The U.S., Japan, India and Australia have held on-again, off-again informal talks known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, since 2007. But some participants were cautious not to paint the gathering as a military grouping or as the foundation of an Asian NATO.
In 2007, Australia assured China, which raised concerns regarding the framework, that it preferred to restrict the Quad to issues of trade and culture. India emphasized to China that year that the Quad held no security implications.
But the symbolic move of holding exercises involving all four Quad countries in the Indo-Pacific region has had analysts wondering whether such "bashfulness," in the words of a retired Indian Navy admiral, was receding.
The real test, according to analysts, will be whether the U.S., Japan and India invite Australia to their annual three-way Malabar exercise. Australia was invited to participate in 2007 as a nonpermanent member. But in 2018, India excluded the Australian forces to avoid the perception of a military group against China.
Following border clashes in the Himalayas with China in recent weeks, however, public sentiment in India is shifting rapidly.
"With India appearing poised to invite Australia to the Malabar naval exercises this year, the symbolism will not be lost on China," said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the California-based Rand Corp. "Having all four Quad members conducting a de facto Quad military exercise will demonstrate unified resolve to counter and compete with China across the Indo-Pacific and indeed the world."
"If Australia is invited to join the Malabar exercises, it indeed would provide renewed optimism for military operationalization of the Quad," said Sameer Lalwani, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
Patrick Gerard Buchan, director of the U.S. Alliances Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued that while India's level of caution toward the Quad had been lowered because of the recent border clashes with China, "it hasn't dropped altogether."
The Quad has always faced a balancing act with China, Buchan said. "No one wants to push the delicate situation," he said.
But Stimson's Lalwani pointed to the joint exercise between India and the U.S. in the Indian Ocean as a precursor of things to come.
Just outside the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's most important chokepoints, the Nimitz carrier, guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton, and guided-missile destroyers USS Sterett and USS Ralph Johnson joined India's Rana, Sahyadri, Shivalik and Kamorta for joint exercises.
"That there were significant U.S. and Indian guided missile ships deployed together cannot go unnoticed and suggests the potential for formidable air defense and anti-submarine-warfare operations," Lalwani said.
Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute think tank, agreed. "The international naval exercises underway in the Indo-Pacific are just the latest demonstration of India, Australia, and Japan shedding prior inhibitions about multilateral military maneuvers," he said.
This comes at a time when all four Quad countries have seen relations with China deteriorate.
In its 2020 Defence Strategic Update paper released this month, Australia struck a more skeptical tone toward China than in its white paper four years ago.
"Since 2016, major powers have become more assertive in advancing their strategic preferences and seeking to exert influence, including China's active pursuit of greater influence in the Indo-Pacific," the paper said. "Australia is concerned by the potential for actions, such as the establishment of military bases, which could undermine stability in the Indo-Pacific and our immediate region."
Japan said in its own 2020 defense white paper that China had "relentlessly" continued with unilateral attempts to coercively alter the status quo in the sea area around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, leading to "a grave matter of concern."
"The Chinese Navy and Air Force have in recent years expanded and intensified their activities in the surrounding sea areas and airspace of Japan, and there are cases involving the one-sided escalation of activities," it noted.
Hudson's Cronin said: "From the Himalayan frontier to the East and South China Seas, the People's Liberation Army and its paramilitary auxiliaries are spearheading Beijing's campaign to gradually carve out an expanding sphere of influence and control. This is hardly a campaign designed to win hearts and minds. As China becomes more feared and less loved, other states are less reticent to express their doubts about Beijing's benign intentions."
Retired Indian Navy Rear Adm. Sudarshan Shrikhande, former head of naval intelligence, said the Quad partnership could potentially expand to include more neighbors.
"It is possible that we are seeing more signs, not only in the quartet, but in more Indo-Pacific capitals that appeasement of China seems to have run its course," he said.
"As a core formulation, the Quad with perhaps some among ASEAN members, may eventually become a useful counterweight to China's muscle-flexing and ambitions."
For that to happen, Shrikhande said, the Quad's cooperation needs to be multidomained. "Increased naval deployments in the Indian Ocean region as well as in the Western Pacific are one aspect, but the diplomatic, economic and even information campaigns to rally closer have not happened anytime in the past."
"I can sense a willingness in the four capitals to move from talk to walk," he said.