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Quad plus strikes back as China threat refuses to abate

The Indo-Pacific Quad meeting is expected to be held later this week

The Indo-Pacific Quad comprising India, the United States, Japan and Australia,  is shifting gears, elevating the security partnership to the next level, in tune with the rise in threat levels in the Indo-Pacific region.

The leaders of the quartet are expected to hold their meeting later this week, probably on March 12 as reported by the website Axios.

Separately, to connect the dots and give the Indo-Pacific grouping another push, US defence secretary,  Lloyd Austin is expected to visit New Delhi this month, in what could be the first visit by a member of US President Joe Biden’s  administration.

President Biden has spoken to the prime ministers of all three countries–  Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Premier Yoshihide Suga. But a joint meeting of the four leaders would give a collective Indo-Pacific strategy a high octane push.

China is the elephant in the room  triggering an energetic response from the four democracies. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, China has been visibly asserting itself in a strategic arc stretching from the Pacific to the shores of the Indian Ocean in Africa, and everything that falls within. Dealing with China and forging a comprehensive responsive is likely to occupy the conversations among the four leaders.

After the summit, the Indian Navy and its partners in the Quad  will engage in  complex interoperability exercises involving carrier strike groups, anti-submarine warfare aircraft and attack submarines in April– a move aimed at projecting their dominance from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits as reported the Hindustan Times.

Quad’s strategic allies France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will be part of this exercise. The UAE will be joining India and France for the first time in a trilateral naval exercise in the strategically important Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in late April under the Varuna banner. This is scheduled between April 25 and 27. UAE’s naval chief confirmed his country’s participation in the Varuna trilateral exercises.

According to the daily, while dates of the Quad plus France naval exercise have to be firmed up on paper, India, the US, Australia, and Japan along  with France will showcase their naval strength and commitment to freedom of navigation in the Bay of Bengal from April 4 to 7 with missile-guided destroyers, frigates, submarines and surveillance aircraft practising complex manoeuvres under the La Perouse banner. European nations including Germany and the United Kingdom have been recently demonstrating a greater willingness to build naval muscle in the Indo-Pacific region following China's growing regional assertiveness.

As India’s sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya is under maintenance after a long deployment arising from India’s stand-off with China in East Ladakh, Indian destroyers, P-8I aircraft and a submarine will participate in the Quad-plus exercise. During the naval drills, the warships will practise formation sailing, live firing, communications, search and rescue, damage control and personnel transfers. The US is also not sending its aircraft carrier to La Perouse; at least three of its carrier strike groups have been deployed throughout the year in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific.

After the on-going stand-off with PLA in East Ladakh, the Indian Navy along with its partners including UAE and France has clear objectives in the Indo-Pacific. While the formidable US navy will hold  fort beyond Malacca Straits, the Indian Navy along with its key allies will be first responders in the Indian Ocean. The visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius this month was to ensure that Indian navy ships can call in at naval ports in these countries, thereby extending their range.

The special ties between India and France will also be on display in the coming months. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and finance minister Bruno Le Maire will be in Delhi next month while IAF chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria will travel to France. At least 8 Rafale fighters will leave for India through mid-air refuelling by UAE between April 19 and April 23.  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to meet French President Emmanuel Macron around the EU summit in Portugal in May.

In January, Sea Dragon 2021 exercise in the US' biggest naval base at Guam illustrates yet another platform in which Washington, with key Indo-Pacific allies and partners, came together to promote high-end naval interoperability and readiness.

In November, India concluded the 24th edition of joint maritime ‘Exercise Malabar 2020’, which saw Australia’s participation for the first time in 13 years, along with the US and Japan.