In a significant move that comes amid a Sino-India border row, India on Monday announced Australia's participation in the upcoming Malabar exercise along with the United States and Japan, effectively making it the first military-level engagement between the four member nations grouping --the Quad.
The invitation by India to the Australian Navy for the exercise next month came two weeks after the foreign ministers of the Quad held extensive talks in Tokyo with a focus on enhancing their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, a region that has been witnessing increasing Chinese military assertiveness.
'As India seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy,' the defence ministry said in a statement.
It also said the participants of the exercise collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, remarks which reflected a subtle change in India's approach towards the drill as well as larger messaging.
The exercise is expected to be held in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.
'The participants of Exercise Malabar 2020 are engaging to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain. They collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules based international order,' the ministry said.
For the last few years, Australia has been showing keen interest in participating in the exercise and India's decision to heed to Australia's request to be part of the mega naval drill comes in the midst of growing strain in ties with China over the border row in eastern Ladakh.
The evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific region in the wake of China's increasing military muscle flexing has become a major talking point among leading global powers. The US has been favouring making Quad a security architecture to check China's growing assertiveness.
In her reaction, Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds CSC termed the participation of her country in the exercise a 'milestone opportunity' and said it will showcase the 'deep trust' between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests.
"High-end military exercises like Malabar are key to enhancing Australia's maritime capabilities, building interoperability with our close partners, and demonstrating our collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific," Reynolds said.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the announcement was another important step in Australia's deepening relationship with India.
"It will bolster the ability of India, Australia, Japan and the United States to work together to uphold peace and stability across our region," she said.
The Malabar exercise started in 1992 as a bilateral drill between the Indian Navy and the US Navy in the Indian Ocean.
Japan became a permanent member of the exercise in 2015.
This annual exercise was conducted off the coast of Guam in the Philippine Sea in 2018 and off the coast of Japan in 2019.
'This year, the exercise has been planned on a 'non-contact - at sea' format,' the defence ministry said, adding that the exercise will strengthen the coordination between the Navies of the participating countries.
Defence and security ties between India and Australia have been on an upswing in the last few years.
In June, India and Australia elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership and signed a landmark deal for reciprocal access to military bases for logistics support during an online summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison. India has already inked mutual logistics support deal with the other two Quad members.
The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) allows militaries of the two countries to use each other's bases for repair and replenishment of supplies besides facilitating scaling up of overall defence cooperation.
Last month, the navies of India and Australian carried out a two-day mega exercise in the Indian Ocean region that featured a range of complex naval manoeuvres, anti-aircraft drills and helicopter operations.