During  his  visit  to  India  in  early  September  2015,  the  Australian  Defence Minister,  Kevin  Andrews  acknowledged  India’s  critical  role  in  supporting security,  stability  and  prosperity  of  the  Indian  Ocean  Region.  He  also stressed that there exists a larger scope for enhanced cooperation on global issues with India as a strategic partner.

The Defence Minister also made a renewed pitch for quadrilateral naval exercises  with Japan and the  US,  as  was  done  in 2007.  It is  important to recall  that  a  similar  suggestion  was  made  earlier  by  Robert  Scher,  the Assistant   Secretary   of   Defense   for   the   Office   of   Strategy,   Plans   and Capabilities,  in  July  2015,  stating  that  the  US  and  India  should  consider permanently  expanding  the  MALABAR  exercise.   This   would   be   an important demonstration of Washington and New Delhi working together on maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

The suggestion, earlier by the US, and now by Australia, have been timed well  as  both  the  nations  are  concerned  about  the  forays  by  the  PLA  Navy into  the  Indian  Ocean,  an  apprehension  equally  shared  by  India  as  well. India  and  Australia  are  scheduled  to  hold  their  first-ever  joint  maritime exercise, AUSINDEX, off the Indian East coast in mid-September 2015, in which  the  Royal  Australian  Navy  (RAN)  is  likely  to  be  represented  by  an anti-submarine   reconnaissance   aircraft,   a   Collins-class   submarine,   a tanker, and a frigate. The AUSINDEX will be followed by MALABAR (US, India   and   Japan)   in   mid-October   2015   and   JIMEX   (India,   Japan), tentatively scheduled in end 2015.

With  prospects  of  the  US,  India,  Japan  and  Australia  participating  in MALABAR in near future, the likelihood of the emergence of the US-India- Japan-Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue  (QSD) has  again come  to the  forefront.  The  QSD,  an  informal  strategic  dialogue  among  the  four countries,  was  established  in  2007.  The  dialogue  was  also  paralleled  by joint  military  exercises  of  an  unprecedented  scale,  Malabar  2007,  with participation  by  all  the  member  countries  and  Singapore.  The  diplomatic and military arrangement was widely perceived as ‘signaling’ to an assertive China,   to   which   Beijing   responded   by   issuing   démarche   to   the   four countries.  Subsequently,  in  2008,  the  QSD  ceased  with  the  withdrawal  of Australia  during  Kevin  Rudd’s  tenure  as  the  Prime  Minister,  owing  to concerns    about    Beijing’s    reactions.    Since    then,    Australia    has    not participated  in  MALABAR,  whereas  Japan  has  participated  in  2009  and 2014 and is again scheduled to participate in October 2015.

In  June  2015,  diplomats  from  Australia,  Japan  and  India  met  in  New Delhi  to  explore  cooperative  engagement  and  address  shared  regional challenges.   The   meeting   formalised   amid   the   common   interests   in preserving a peaceful and stable regional order and avoiding a ‘Pax Sinica’. Maritime security,  in  the  backdrop  of Chinese  assertive  maneuvers  in  the South China Sea and increased forays into the Indian Ocean, was at the top of   the   agenda.   It   is,   therefore,   not   surprising   that   the   cooperative engagement in June 2015 is now being followed up by a series of bilateral/ trilateral exercises such as the AUSINDEX, MALABAR and JIMEX in next few months.

The United States, on the other hand, remains the sole superpower, and the  most  influential  extra  regional  power  in  Asia.  With  its  unprecedented military  presence  in  the  region  and  recent  ‘pivot  to  Asia’,  makes  the  US even  more  closely  involved  with  the  two  Asian  giants  and  other  regional powers.  Any  security  calculus  in  Asia,  without  the  US,  therefore,  would remain   an   oxymoron.   The   US   remains   actively   engaged   with   India, Australia  and  Japan,  and  shares  common  values  of  democracy,  freedom, freedom  of  navigation  and  the  rule  of  law.  It  also  shares  the  common concerns over China’s military build-up, non-conformance to international law  and  norms,  and  increasingly  assertive  attempts  to  unilaterally  force  a shift in the regional status quo.

The recent suggestion by the US, followed by Australia, for an expanded participation in MALABAR, appears to be a move towards the return of the Quadrilateral arrangement to supplement the regional security architecture in  the  Indo-Pacific  region.  The  enhanced  trilateral  engagement  between India, Japan and Australia would, therefore, provide a sound groundwork for a return to the QSD in the near future.

However, among the three countries envisioned to be involved with the US  in  the  QSD,  India  might  have  reservations  as  it  would  continue  to zealously  protect  its  ability  to  forge  an  independent  foreign  policy.  Also, risks and benefits involved in a Dialogue, which Beijing might consider as inimical to its interest, would be totally different for India and Japan than for the US and Australia.

Today’s China is a lot different from what it was in 2006-2007. At that time it was witnessing an unprecedented double digit growth for over more than  two  decades.  Also,  post  extended  period  of  isolation,  China  was  still evolving  in  the  global  affairs.  It  was  also  pursuing  an  aggressive  foreign policy, and in the process, alienated most states in its periphery. Even the dividends  of its erstwhile  successful ‘Chequebook diplomacy’  in Southeast Asia  waned,  as  most  of  the  ASEAN  nations  tilted  towards  the  US,  in  the backdrop   of   aggressive   Chinese   maneuvers   in   the   South   China   Sea. Consequently,   China,   in   2006-2007,   fervently   opposed   any   bilateral cooperation/ maritime exercise involving the US, India, Japan or Australia in the Indo-Pacific region, let alone a multilateral MALABAR of 2007.

Beijing   has   apparently   drawn   lessons;   it   is   more   confident   and   is exhibiting  a  mature  foreign  policy and  decision  making.  Also,  the  recent economic  slowdown  has  burst  the  ‘interminable  China  growth’  myth,  and China is now expected to factor the economic consequences whilst pursuing its  foreign  policy.  Beijing,  therefore,  is  likely  to  pursue  a  relatively  more ‘settled’ diplomacy, than the past decade. The fact that Beijing hardly raised any concerns over participation of Japan in MALABAR of 2014 and 2015 is a  testament  to  the  assumption.  Also,  there  have  not  been any  worthwhile reactions  from  China  on  the  US  and  Australian  suggestions  at  expanding the scope of MALABAR in future.

It would,  therefore, be  fair to argue  that MALABAR  2016  could involve Japan, Australia and possibly Singapore. Also, the QSD, involving the US, India, Japan and Australia, may re-assert in the near future.

About the Author 

Commander Dinesh Yadav is a Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation  (NMF).  He  is  a  Communication  specialist  and  has  a  Masters degree  in  Defence  and  Strategic  Studies  from  Madras  University.  He  also has a Diploma in Strategic and Defence Studies from University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. The views expressed are his own.

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