In a much awaited development, an official press release from the Government of India, on 19 October 2020, has confirmed that Australia will take part in this year’s edition of the MALABAR series of naval exercises, which is scheduled to be held in November of this year. Correspondingly, in a high-visibility joint media-release, by Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs (Senator the Honourable Marise Payne) and the Minister for Defence, (Senator the Honourable Linda Reynolds, CSC), it was highlighted that the Indian invitation was an outflow from the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ of June 2020 between India and Australia and showcased the deep trust that was in increasing evidence amongst the four major Indo-Pacific democracies and demonstrated their shared will to work together on common security interests.
Three important facets immediately stand out. The first is that since, unlike the case with India, the USA, and Japan, where the navy conducts maritime surveillance and long-range anti-submarine warfare, in Australia, it is the Royal Australian Air Force that provides maritime surveillance for the country. Therefore, this or future editions of Exercise MALABAR will inevitably shift from being a ‘combined’ exercise to a ‘joint and combined’ one, akin to last year’s Exercise TIGER TRIUMPH (held off the eastern coast of India, from 13-21 November 2019). The Indian penchant for terming everything as ‘joint’ notwithstanding, these two terms, ‘combined’ and ‘joint’ actually denote different quite different things. As Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan explains,
“Joint’ Exercises/Operations imply exercises or operations conducted by two or more military/paramilitary agencies of the same nation. Examples of the correct use of the adjective ‘Joint’ would include ‘IN-ICG Joint Exercises/Operations’, ‘IN-IAF Joint Exercises/Operations’, ‘IA-IAF Joint Exercises/ Operations’, ‘IA-IN-IAF Joint Amphibious Exercises/Operations’, and so on. ‘Combined’ Exercises/Operations, on the other hand, imply operations or exercises conducted by one or more military/paramilitary agencies of two or more different nations. Examples of the correct use of the adjective ‘Combined’ would include ‘IN-USN Combined Exercises/Operations, IAF-USAF Combined Exercises/Operations, IN-RSN Combined Exercises/Operations, and so forth. It is, of course, possible for ‘Combined’ operations/exercises to also be ‘Joint’. Thus, one could have, for example, ‘IN-IAF-USN Combined Exercises/Operations, etc.”
The second is that the preferred Indian 21st Century preference for a hierarchy of ‘strategic partnerships’ (it has at least two discernible levels: ‘Strategic Partnerships’ and ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships’, with a possible third one being ‘Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnerships’), as an alternative to the Cold War system of alliances is gaining acceptability and traction and is being seen as being nearly (if not quite) at par with the treaty alliance that binds the other participants in the MALABAR series, viz., the USA, Australia and Japan. This has very important spin-off effects on the ‘velocity’ (direction and speed) of the ongoing evolution of the ‘Quad’, which is of course, a much wider geopolitical construct than MALABAR, which at the end of the day, is only a ‘naval’ or at best a ‘maritime security’ construct.
The third is the robustness of the strategic signalling, with China as the intended recipient. China’s initial reaction has been muted, with Beijing reportedly saying only that it had “taken note” of Australia’s joining the exercise, adding only that military cooperation should be “conducive” to regional peace and stability. This is a far more sober reaction that the one that had emanated from Beijing in the mid-1990s (1996 to be precise, following the election of the Liberal‐National Coalition of John Howard) when in the wake of the sharp downturn in the Australia-China bilateral relationship, “a Chinese publication compared Australia to a bat which gave its allegiance to the mammals when they triumphed, but showed its wings and declared itself a bird when the birds were victorious”. The sobriety of the current reaction notwithstanding, there seems to be little doubt that the strategic messaging is being received in Beijing with precisely the degree of disquiet that the senders of the message have intended. John Blaxland, professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University has stated quite unequivocally what the four navies would not or could not state, namely, that “China has to a large extent brought this on itself… Its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, its unwillingness to negotiate on the South China Sea, its assertiveness across the Indian Ocean, and its assertiveness in the South Pacific have all raised considerable unease and have undermined popular views of China.”
Australia’s re-entry into the MALABAR series comes as no surprise. Speculation has long been rife on the issue even though for several years, India had refused to include Australia in the exercise despite Japan being invited in 2015 as a regular participant. The MALABAR series of naval exercises originally started as an annual bilateral exercise between the US navy and the Indian navy, but has grown in relevance, weight, and publicity, with the rise of China.
The 2020 edition of the exercise, scheduled to be held in the Bay of Bengal in November of this year, will be widely viewed against the backdrop of rising tensions between India and China. In June, earlier this year, 20 Indian soldiers and an unverified (but believed to be large) number of Chinese soldiers were killed in the worst border flareup between the two countries in recent memory. This was followed by a military build-up on both sides of the common border between the Union Territory of Ladakh in India and Tibet, which is claimed by China. The standoff between the armed forces of the two countries in the region continues despite numerous meetings, both at the military- as well as the diplomatic levels to achieve disengagement.
China’s ties with Australia, too, have seen a significant downturn recently. Although debate in Australia on China’s perceived negative impact on global geopolitics as well as its malafide influence in Australian domestic politics has been continuing for at least a decade if not more, the present downslide could be attributed to the Australian government’s decision to demand an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Irritated by these demands, China has retaliated by taking steps to reduce or ban Australian imports.
Both India and Australia are participants in the Quadrilateral security dialogue, more popularly known as the Quad, along with the US and Japan. The most recent meet of this grouping was held in Tokyo earlier this month at the level of foreign ministers. Beijing perceives the Quad as being directed against China. The US, on the other hand has called for the institutionalisation of the Quad.
India’s Reservations with respect to Australia
The first time that Australia participated in a MALABAR exercise was in 2007. This was also the first time that this annual exercise was conducted outside the Indian Ocean. The 2007 exercise was the largest of its kind till then and also included warships of Singapore and Japan, apart from those of the US, India and Australia. The first part of this 2007 edition of the exercise was conducted off the coast of Okinawa near the east China Sea. The nature of the 2007 exercise, the participation of the navies of five States, and, above all, the location, all combined to give Beijing the impression that the exercise was aimed at China.
India, which has followed a rigid non-aligned foreign policy since its independence, was hard pressed to explain its conduct, both to international as well as domestic audiences. Within the country, the Left parties accused the government of unilaterally changing the country’s foreign policy and taking it on a confrontational path in global politics. China, on the other hand, also protested and demanded that the participants explain the motive of the exercise.
To make matters worse for the Indian government, Australia withdrew from the Quad the very next year in 2008. Under the government of the manifestly pro-China Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Canberra decided to pull out from the Quad which had its first meeting in 2007. Considering that Australia already had a security dialogue with Japan and the US, the move was seen as an attempt to keep India out. Expectedly, the Indian government, which had faced flak and accusations of overenthusiasm less than a year ago, was outraged. New Delhi refused to include Australia in the Malabar exercise ever since.
However, Australian attitudes towards China and India, in the entire spectrum of its many political entities, have evolved since 2007-2008. That said, quite like Australia, India, too, has a multi-faceted relationship with China. Together with its post-independence policy of non-alignment, it has made efforts, at different points in history, to manage its ties with Beijing, as against allowing it to spiral downwards to a point of outright hostility. Due to this, India did not want to be seen as gathering into a single ‘camp’, all States within the Indo-pacific region that disagreed with China’s world view, or at least its regional one.
The most recent of these efforts was by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he travelled to Wuhan in 2018 for an informal summit with President Xi Jinping. The success of the summit reinforced views in Indian political circles that China could be managed. As a result, India, much like Australia in 2008, began to dial down its participation in the Quad. However, developments since the summit, especially on the disputed India-China border have led to yet another rethink in New Delhi.
Deterioration of ties with China and the Quad
The effect of the Wuhan summit began to fade after approximately a year. When India amended its Constitution to change the status of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Beijing not only opposed the change but also gave all-out support to Pakistan on the issue. Despite External Affairs Minister Subramanian Jaishankar’s attempts to explain Indian position as having no impact on its territorial claims or borders with other States, China continued to demand a discussion on Kashmir at the UNSC.
This, perhaps, finally led India to raise the level of its participation in the Quad to foreign ministers meet, a move that India had, till then, resisted. The downslide in ties continued despite Xi Jinping’s visit to India in October 2019 and the celebrations attending the completion of 70 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, in April this year (2020). The violent confrontation on India-China border in June has since brought the two countries to the brink of an armed conflict.
Australia-China ties have similarly moved southward. After the bonhomie of the Kevin Rudd era, a vigorous debate ensued in the country over its relations with China. The turning point came when the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) warned of Chinese attempts to influence Australian policy making. The Australian government reacted by enacting legislation specifically designed to counter foreign interference in Australian domestic affairs. In 2018, Australia became the first country to ban Chinese firms from participating in the building of its 5G network. After Canberra demanded an investigation into the origins of Corona virus earlier this year, China has tried to punish Australia economically by using trade-tricks to reduce Australian imports. It has banned the import of Australian coal, slapped tariff on barley and launched an anti-dumping probe against wine from Australia.
Instead of changing Australian policies, the steps taken by China have hardened Canberra’s stance. Prime Minister Scott Morrison (echoing John Howard’s reaction to similar Chinese bullying in 1996) has stated that Australia will not bend to Chinese economic coercion. Australia now (once again as in 1996), more often than not, staunchly supports American position on China. It has firmly taken up its position in the Quad and is keen on improving its coordination with other members, including India. The fact that this is happening just when India’s own relations with China are at their nadir, provides considerable impetus to the process.
In June, India and Australia signed an agreement to elevate their relationship to that of a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’. The leaders of the two countries agreed on a “shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” and signed a ‘Mutual Logistics Support Agreement’ (MLSA), which would enable the militaries of the two countries to access each other’s bases and increase interoperability. India and Australia have also raised their 2+2 dialogue from the level of Secretaries to their respective governments, to the ministerial level.
The close cooperation between Australia and India is a welcome development for the other two members of the Quad. US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, has stated that he would like to see the institutionalisation of the Quad. However, despite the closeness now in evidence between the four members of the Quad, is difficult to assess just how this might be achieved or even what the shape of the ‘institutions’ would be, if at all Pompeo’s ideas come to pass. Since the Quad discusses security, it is a given that some kind of security setup may well be created if Pompeo’s initiative is pursued.
Australian renewed participation in future editions of the MALABAR series of naval exercises could be considered another step in the elevation of the Quad, especially if this becomes a regular feature, as is widely expected. Although strategic community in India holds varying opinions on the institutionalisation of the Quad, with no less a personage than the External Affairs Minister, Dr Jaishankar having stated that India has not and will never join an alliance, increasing coordination between the four Quad members seems to be moving in that very direction, albeit without a formal tag of being an ‘alliance’. Perhaps even more importantly, China, too, is likely to see it precisely as such, leading to further hardening of divisions in the Indo-Pacific region.
India’s invitation to Australia to participate in the Quad is significant in that it breaks down one of the walls that has divided two large powers in the Indo-Pacific region. It also firms up the Quad, which has already seen elevation in the level of interaction between the four States. The Indian government has acknowledged that its relations with Japan have become “strategic” in nature. The two countries are clearly coordinating their foreign and security policies more frequently.
China’s deteriorating relations with both India and Australia, at one and the same time, are likely to continue to push the two democracies closer together. The inclusion of Australia in the 2020 edition of the MALABAR series of naval exercise suggests that in the coming years, India’s relations with Australia are quite likely to move in the same positive direction as they have in the case of Japan in the last few years. This view gains further credence with the two countries having elevated their ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ earlier this year, when they had also signed a defence logistics agreement.
Although American initiative in talking of the institutionalisation of the Quad may be premature, the participation of all four countries of the Quad in a major naval exercise in the Indo-Pacific certainly signals that the members of this currently ‘informal’ grouping may be more ready for cooperation in security matters than ever before. The last time that all four Quad States had participated in a MALABAR exercise, China had lodged a set of diplomatic protests. Over a decade down the line, it remains to be seen how Beijing will react to this development.
About the Author
Rajesh Soami is an Associate Fellow of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). A prolific writer, his research is presently focussed upon maritime developments in the Indo-Pacific in general and the geopolitical and geostrategic ‘game-moves’ of Pakistan, China, Russia, and Turkey, in particular. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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