The Quad’s Malabar Exercises Point the Way to an Asian NATO

India, Japan, Australia, and the United States have a good model if they want to keep the peace without threatening China.

By Salvatore Babones, an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.
A French Rafale fighter jet prepares to land on the aircraft carrier "Charles de Gaulle" during a joint Indo-French naval exercise off Goa, India, on May 9, 2019.
A French Rafale fighter jet prepares to land on the aircraft carrier "Charles de Gaulle" during a joint Indo-French naval exercise off Goa, India, on May 9, 2019. PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, the four Indo-Pacific Quad countries—India, Japan, Australia, and the United States—completed a series of joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. The Malabar exercises began in the Bay of Bengal with routine air-sea drills involving destroyers, frigates, and helicopters. The second phase, held off the Malabar coast in the Arabian Sea, brought in the big ships: the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and the supercarrier USS Nimitz. It was a rare opportunity for U.S. F-18s to train alongside India’s Russian-built MiG-29Ks under the direction of the U.S. Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye surveillance aircraft.

Both the Quad itself—a loose relationship more formally known as the U.S.-Australia-India-Japan Consultations—and the Malabar exercises linking its four members have been touted (and dismissed) as an “Asian NATO.” Some of the impetus for the idea that the Quad could turn into a full-fledged military alliance came from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who pointed out that “even NATO started with relatively modest expectations” when it was founded in 1949. But a better way to imagine a path forward for the Quad is to compare it to NATO today. Most people regard NATO as a hard military alliance, but no one seriously expects Russian tanks to sweep into Germany and France—and NATO’s Eastern European members are certainly not waiting for Iceland and Portugal to rise to their defense.

In reality, today’s NATO is primarily a training and standards-setting organization, with a military alliance tacked on for show. Its own website lists its first purpose as political (“NATO promotes democratic values”) and only its second as military (“NATO is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes”). NATO maintains programs on arms control, human trafficking, gender diversity, energy security, and the environment. Those are all issues the Quad can and should be tackling. As for NATO’s harder edge, exercises like Malabar can be extended to embrace NATO missions like counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and ballistic missile defense.

About the only thing NATO does that doesn’t make sense for the future of Malabar and the Quad is the forward deployment of multinational battlegroups. There are four of these battalion-sized formations in Eastern Europe, totaling just 4,500 troops as of 2017. That’s smaller than the crew of a single U.S. supercarrier. India alone has 10 times that number facing China on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, where hostilities briefly broke out in May. It would be laughable to suggest that India wants or needs a multinational Quad battalion to reinforce its positions on the Chinese border.
Nearly every country in the region must deal with China’s salami-slicing tactics to degrade target countries’ maritime sovereignty.

What India does need (and want) is greater air-sea training collaboration with the United States and its allies. In addition to this year’s Malabar exercises involving its three Quad partners, India conducts regular bilateral exercises with Japan and the United States. India also holds regular annual exercises with France and has initiated naval cooperation talks with the European Union. India has purchased Boeing P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft from the United States and Dassault Rafale air superiority jets from France, and it has to learn how make them work together with its existing armory of Russian jets and anti-aircraft missiles. All of that takes practice.

Looking beyond India, other countries in the region would also benefit from working with an Asian NATO that is primarily a training and standards-setting organization, not an armed defense force. Vietnam, for example, would never contemplate joining a U.S.-sponsored military alliance, but it engages in naval training exercises with both India and Japan, in addition to the United States. South Korea has historically had difficulty engaging in bilateral security cooperation with Japan, but it might be easier for the country to participate in a broader regional grouping. And Taiwan’s special status prevents it from joining most treaty organizations, but that needn’t prevent it from participating in civilian programs covering NATO-type topics like human trafficking and cybersecurity.

A more muscular Quad might also sponsor deeper naval cooperation through the creation of a kind of permanent Malabar. There is a perpetual need for search-and-rescue, anti-piracy, and maritime security patrols in the Indian Ocean and the waters of Southeast Asia. Nearly every country in the region must also deal with China’s salami-slicing tactics to degrade target countries’ maritime sovereignty, often relying on irregular forces such as fishing fleets. Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite has actually suggested the reactivation of a U.S. First Fleet to be based in the area. But with Trump’s 350-ship Navy plan unlikely to be endorsed by President-elect Joe Biden, there is little chance that the ships required for such a fleet would be available—even if a country could be found to host the force.

The naval strategist James Fanell has suggested a provocative alternative: The Quad countries and their prospective partners could establish a standing multinational naval force operating on a rotational basis. In contrast to NATO, the individual units of this force would not be integrated; each country would operate its own ships. But they would work together to pursue common maritime security missions, gaining valuable interoperability experience along the way.
An initially more modest Asian NATO might start with a budget of less than $1 billion.

If Biden’s designated secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, is looking for a mission for the Quad, then using it to build an Asian NATO might be just the thing. And it wouldn’t take tremendous resources. Contrary to popular perceptions, NATO itself is not a particularly large organization. Its permanent headquarters employs approximately 500 military and 1,000 civilian staff. A total of 6,000 civilians work in “different agencies and strategic and regional commands”—NATO-speak for “on projects.” NATO’s annual military and civilian budgets combined total less than $2.2 billion.

An initially more modest Asian NATO might start with a budget of less than $1 billion, a small secretariat based in Japan or Australia, and naval-only forces committed on a purely rotational basis. It would send a strong message to China without being explicitly directed against it. Like Malabar and other regional exercises, its purpose would be to raise professional standards and improve interoperability, not to oppose any particular enemy. Of course, by enhancing the readiness of the region’s naval and air forces, this more muscular Quad would better prepare them to confront China—or any other opponent—should the need arise. But like today’s NATO, the group’s core missions would be largely peaceful, not confrontational.

As currently constituted, the Quad is just as superfluous as it was in 2007 and 2008, the first time its four members got together—only to abandon the group again. The Quad isn’t even useful as an anti-China talking shop: At its October ministerial in Tokyo, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the only participant to publicly call out China. There is certainly no appetite in Asia for a pan-Asian military alliance to confront China in the way that NATO once confronted the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact.

Luckily, that’s not what Asia needs. Each country in the region faces its own China challenges, none of which involves tanks sweeping across the frontiers. An Asian security organization modeled on today’s more genteel NATO would help its members deal with 21st-century threats like Chinese salami tactics and cyberwar while maintaining a plausible facade that none of these efforts were directed at Beijing directly. And, in fact, they wouldn’t be. The Quad’s members and partners would only be cooperating to better maintain peace in the region. If that happens to thwart China’s ambitions in particular, it’s only because China is the only country in the region that seems intent on disturbing the peace.

Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones