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Why Britain should join Exercise Malabar

Across the seas of the Indo-Pacific, maritime forces of the United States (US), India, Japan, and Australia are now undertaking the annual Malabar exercise. This year’s drill will be the first hosted by Australia and takes place primarily off the country’s eastern coastline with a focus on interoperability, sea deterrence, sea denial and anti-submarine warfare. Ensuring freedom of navigation across the Indo-Pacific is the impetus of this multinational endeavour.

However, there is another regional maritime power yet to be invited formally to take part in these increasingly important annual exercises: the United Kingdom (UK). While some may raise an eyebrow to British participation, inclusion remains a worthy aspiration for one of the world’s few expeditionary naval powers. Britain’s ability to project naval power far from its own shores, in a multitude of delivery and means, remains an exclusive prerogative which only the US and, to some extent, France, share. 

With the rise of an increasingly assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the shared challenges it presents for the UK and the four Malabar nations, there remains tangible benefits for all members in continuing to increase cooperation in the maritime security sphere. Although a separate endeavour, the four nations participating in the Malabar exercises also make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), where British participation could also be beneficial for the members and the UK.

There are some clear reasons why UK participation in both Exercise Malabar and the Quad makes sense. First, Britain already has extensive defence relations with the four nations in question. The US, Australia, and Japan are all defence and security treaty-bound partners of the UK. The US is a NATO ally, while Australia joins Britain in the Five Power Defence Arrangements. In February 2023, Japan and the UK signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement, and even more recently entered into a ‘quasi-alliance’ through the Hiroshima Accord. Meanwhile, India and the UK are committed to deepening their strategic partnership

Second, Britain holds a similar vision for the Indo-Pacific, and is genuine about fostering a stable region. After this year’s Integrated Review Refresh (IRR), it is clear a free and open Indo-Pacific has become a ‘pillar’ of British foreign policy. More than half of global economic growth is projected to come from the region by 2050, and so it remains central to the UK’s long-term prosperity. However, within these opportunities also lie deep risks, fuelled by a PRC intent on militarising the region, coercing regional partners and neighbours, and infringing upon international maritime law.

The opportunity that Exercise Malabar and the Quad give their members to work and operate alongside one another each year mindful of a shared systemic challenge is becoming increasingly valuable in the current geostrategic context.

In the IRR, His Majesty’s (HM) Government also reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to standing firmly alongside the interests of its Indo-Pacific allies and partners. And these words have been backed up consistently by action: after Britain announced its Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ and ambition to maintain a persistent presence in the region, the Royal Navy’s flagship vessel, HMS Queen Elizabeth, a large aircraft carrier, steamed half-way across the globe with an accompanying international flotilla in a demonstrable sign of the UK’s maritime strength and ambition to work closer with regional partners. 

The Carrier Strike Group’s deployment – which is set to recommence in 2025 and will almost certainly visit India, Japan and Australia – was followed by the permanent-deployment of two Royal Navy vessels to the Indo-Pacific. Currently, HMS Tamar and HMS Spey, Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), are located on Australia’s east coast – the site of this year’s Malabar exercises.

If Britain wishes to showcase its commitment to regional security affairs further while strengthening its partnerships with important Indo-Pacific allies and partners, it should strive for inclusion into the annual Malabar exercises. Although too late to do so this year – a pity considering the utility of two Royal Navy OPVs in the same location the exercises are due to take place – future opportunities should not be missed. 

Inclusion next year, perhaps as an official observer, would also help shape the conditions for the Royal Navy’s carrier strike return in 2025. British participation in the Quad, perhaps as a ‘Quad Plus’ member, would also have a further, far broader impact; it would help solidify the Quad’s purpose – as a loose, informal group, the Quad is often subject to waning political interest from member nations – the lack of which could lead to impotence. Indeed, including the UK in the Malabar exercises and broadening the Quad to include Britain in some capacity will not only enhance interoperability between the five nations, but further align their strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific. This is of crucial importance now a strategic adversary continues to mount challenges and raise tensions in the region.

For now, Beijing only may be harassing weaker regional neighbours. But as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) begins to reach maturity, a time will come – likely this decade – when the PLAN’s force modernisation, sheer expansion in terms of vessels produced, and increased operational experience, coupled with the PRC’s political resolve, will make it a fighting force able to challenge the US directly – and, crucially, its allies and partners – for regional maritime supremacy. 

Despite ‘pulsing’ a naval presence East of Suez, the UK ought to step up. HM Government should harness the main tangible strength Britain, the US, and all likeminded nations share in their quest to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific – the ability to work together to achieve a power greater than the sum of their parts. Here, the PRC is at a distinct disadvantage, having no regional powers as strong and stable defence allies save the increasingly unstable and impoverished nations of North Korea and Russia, neither of which are strong Indo-Pacific maritime powers. 

The opportunity that Exercise Malabar and the Quad give their members to work and operate alongside one another each year mindful of a shared systemic challenge is becoming increasingly valuable in the current geostrategic context. Just like it was able to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and become a Dialogue Partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Britain should seek a place for itself in these important minilateral Indo-Pacific endeavours.

Robert Clark is the Director of the Defence and Security Unit at Civitas. Prior to this he served in the British military.

Embedded image credit: Government of Japan (CC BY 4.0 cropped and overlaid)

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