Over the past quarter-century, the Malabar naval exercises have blossomed from a relatively mundane, low-level Indo-U.S. naval drill into a robust demonstration of geopolitical force joining the Indo-Pacific’s three most powerful democracies. The history and significance of Malabar, which Japan joined as a permanent participant in 2015, have received ample attention elsewhere. But let me focus this piece on the geopolitical context and significance of Australia’s request to join the 2017 Malabar exercises and India’s recent response.
Canberra has “regularly discussed” participating in Malabar with Delhi since at least 2015. Last month Defense Minister Marisa Payne publicly reaffirmed Canberra was “very interested” in quadrilateral engagement with India, the United States, and Japan. Apparently, Canberra’s private and public lobbying was for naught, with reports indicating India has declined Australia’s request to join Malabar 2017.
On the one hand, India’s decision tracks with its history of both its apprehensiveness toward geopolitical “alignment” broadly and quadrilateral demonstrations of force specifically as well as its traditional deference to Chinese sensitivities on related matters. On the other hand, recent changes in Indian foreign policy and the geopolitical landscape more broadly render Delhi’s decision somewhat surprising and—for those in Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra that have been lobbying for Australia’s inclusion in Malabar—lamentable.
First, India’s decision breaks a trend of accelerating strategic engagement with Australia bilaterally, reinforced by a landmark nuclear cooperation deal reached in 2014 that ended a contentious legacy on nuclear-related matters. More recently, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was welcomed to Delhi in April, where he insisted Australia was ready to begin uranium exports to India and reaffirmed Canberra’s support for Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Routine but hollow calls to deepen cooperation were replaced by meaningful advances in security ties: the two agreed to hold their first joint army exercises in 2018, establish a new “2+2” defense and foreign ministers dialogue, and enhance intelligence cooperation.
Not all the headlines were positive. Turnbull failed to advance a Logistics Support Agreement comparable to the one signed by Washington and Delhi last year. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement which has been six years in the making also witnessed little progress. Perhaps most significant, shortly after Turnbull departed Delhi, Canberra confirmed plans to scrap an employer-sponsored temporary work visa program (Indians account for more than one-quarter of the visas issued under the program each year).
Conspicuously announced just days after the visa program was canceled, India’s decision on Malabar may well have been related. Yet, it’s more likely India’s decision was influenced by a decision Australia made ten years ago, the first and last time it participated in a Malabar exercise.
In 2004, the navies of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States were thrust into a collaborate initiative by the most unfortunate of circumstances. Now largely forgotten in the West, in December 2004 a cataclysmic wave of tsunamis generated by an undersea megathrust earthquake off the coast of Indonesia claimed hundreds of thousands casualties across the Indo-Pacific. In response, the four democracies coordinated humanitarian relief efforts under the auspices of the ‘Regional Core Group.’
In the years to follow, the four capitals began flirting with greater quadrilateral strategic collaboration. In 2006 the Australia, Japan, and the United States formed their first trilateral security dialogue. In March 2007, Australia and Japan forged a bilateral security pact and India initiated its first strategic dialogue with Japan. The following month, India, Japan, and the United States conducted their first-ever trilateral naval exercise.
In May 2007, the four countries held the inaugural meeting of a new quadrilateral dialogue on the sidelines of an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting. “It is absolutely not new for Japan and the U.S. to sit down and plot conspiracies together but it is rather intriguing to get India involved,” noted the People’s Daily at the time. Six months later, Singapore joined the four navies in an unusually robust multilateral demonstration of naval power. Three aircraft carriers (two U.S., one Indian) led a special edition of the Malabar exercises that year, joined by a nuclear-powered submarine, and one dozen cruisers, frigates, and destroyers.
Within months the “Quad” met its untimely demise. A change in government in Australia prompted a shift in approach toward China and ultimately Canberra’s withdrawal from the initiative. While domestic politics in Japan and India were trending in similar directions, at a time when India was uneasily testing the boundaries of alignment, Australia’s about-face felt like a betrayal. Some version of “we stuck our neck out and Australia hung us out to dry” is still a common refrain heard in Delhi today.
It’s possible India’s decision on Malabar 2017 was influenced by this experience. But it’s just as likely the product of prevailing concerns about China’s potential reaction to any new Quad initiative. In an environment of elevated Sino-Indian tensions, Indian analyst Abhijit Singh argues that inviting Australia to join Malabar would “almost certainly cross Beijing’s tolerance threshold, triggering a backlash that New Delhi might find hard to contain.” He says Indian policymakers fear Australia’s participation “could trigger a game of high-stakes brinkmanship with China, with damaging consequences.”
While Singh accurately summarizes lingering concerns in Delhi, they appear largely unfounded and incongruent with the strategic confidence India has adopted toward China as of late. To be sure, this elevated confidence is not new and can be traced to as far back as 2010. That year, Delhi suspended all bilateral military relations with China after it refused to grant a visa to the commanding Indian general of Northern Command in Kashmir. Soon thereafter, Delhi refused to endorse the One China Policy in a joint statement with China and has omitted the language ever since, insisting Beijing must first recognize a “One India” policy and Indian sovereignty over Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.
Yet it is also true that this trend seems to have accelerated under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. In just the last year this confidence manifest in Delhi’s unusually vocal support for a July 2016 UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal decision that invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim. It was evident in visits to the Chinese-claimed territory of Arunachal Pradesh by the U.S. Ambassador to India and the Dalai Lama. And it was perhaps most evident in Delhi’s unique opposition to President Xi Jinping’s signature One Belt One Road Initiative. India is, after all, the only major country that refused to send representatives to this month’s highly-touted Belt and Road Initiative summit.
This confidence also explains Delhi’s growing comfort with multilateral (and particularly trilateral) security initiatives. An India-Japan-Australia trilateral dialogue was initiated in 2015 to complement an older U.S.-India-Japan trilateral dialogue that’s since been upgraded to the foreign minister-level. It also explains why India relented to adding Japan as a permanent participant in the Malabar in 2015 following years of lobbying by Tokyo and Washington.
Why this trend was broken by Australia’s Malabar bid isn’t clear. Nor is it clear why some in Delhi believe Australia’s inclusion would represent a some sort of red line for China or cross Beijing’s threshold in some way. The 2007 multilateral exercises prompted no more than a diplomatic note of concern from Beijing and a hawkish editorial in the Global Times. It’s also hard to imagine how Australia’s inclusion in Malabar would be more provocative than stonewalling President Xi’s legacy OBOR initiative or refusing to endorse the One China Policy, as Delhi has done since 2010.
Of course, it’s also possible more trivial contemporary and historical irritants in Indo-Australia relations are to blame. The implications of the decision, however, are far from trivial, retarding the development of a strategically consequential assembly of the Indo-Pacific’s strongest democracies at a time the regional security order is under growing duress. Delhi would be well-served by communicating its specific concerns about Australia’s inclusion and China’s reaction to its partners in Tokyo and Washington, and conducting a holistic review of the long-term costs and benefits of Australian membership before we move closer to Malabar 2018.