• Bloomberg, Kyodo

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Australia will join the annual Malabar naval exercise with Japan and the U.S. to be held off the Indian coast this year, according to statements from the South Asian country’s defense ministry and Australia’s defense minister.

The exercise will be held in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, along some of the world’s busiest trade routes, to "strengthen the coordination between the Navies,” India’s Ministry of Defence said in its statement. The drills have previously been held off the coast of Japan and off the coast of Guam in the Philippine sea.

The decision to include Australia in the exercise — the first time all members of the regional grouping known as the "Quad" will be engaged militarily — comes as Beijing and New Delhi are embroiled in their worst border standoff in four decades. The drills will take place at the end of this year.

"Exercise Malabar also showcases the deep trust between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests,” Australia’s Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said in a statement.

China has been uncomfortable with the Quad coalition, which was first formed in 2004 and revived in 2017.

"We have taken note of this development,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing in Beijing on Tuesday. "We always believe that military cooperation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability.”

Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who was in New Delhi recently to prepare for the visit of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper later this month, said the U.S. and India had been "too cautious” about China’s reaction to the grouping with Japan and Australia.

News of Australia's inclusions in Exercise Malabar came a day after Reynolds agreed with Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi that Tokyo and Canberra would begin coordination to enable Japan to protect Australian military assets in noncombat situations.

The protection by Japan's Self-Defense Forces of weapons and equipment belonging to foreign military forces became possible with the passage of new security legislation in 2015. Australia will be the second country, after the United States, whose assets Japan is allowed to protect under the law.

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