In the aftermath of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China, India once again refused Australia’s bid to participate in the 2018 Malabar exercises. The Malabar exercises were first established in 1992 between India and the United States, but due to tensions arising from India’s nuclearization in 1998, it became an annual feature only in 2002. The bilateral exercises evolved from basic naval drills to include aircraft carriers in 2005 and added anti-piracy drills and search and rescue with a U.S. strike group and Coast Guard ships from both countries in 2006.
The Malabar exercises of 2007 was significant, as the India-U.S. cooperation was expanded to include Australia, Japan, and Singapore in multilateral official level security talks. The expansion of the Malabar exercises, which were already a security concern for China, led to vociferous protests from Beijing, which labeled the exercises as an “anti-China coalition.” Under pressure to maintain good relations with the growing economic giant, Australia withdrew from the fledgling Quadrilateral, involving the United States, India, Australia, and Japan.
The dismantling of the Quadrilateral in 2007 was also based on the lack of adequate defense cooperation between the Quad members. A decade later, in 2017, there had been notable development in this area, with trilaterals between India, Australia, and the United States and India, Australia, and Japan, and improved bilateral defense exchanges between India and Australia, India and Japan, and India and the United States. Japan joined the Malabar exercises as a permanent member in 2015. The 21st edition of the Malabar exercises in mid-July 2017 saw 16 ships, two submarines, 95 aircraft, Marine Commandos and Special Forces from the three countries (the Quad minus Australia), demonstrating a steady enhancement of defense cooperation.
The attempt to reinvigorate the Quadrilateral on the sidelines of the East Asian Summit in 2017 and the common platform occupied by the Quad countries in the Raisina Dialogue of 2018 makes India’s decision to refuse Australia’s membership in the Malabar exercises even more mysterious. However, the underlying considerations of India’s move can be discerned when looked at closely. While all the Quad members share concerns of not excessively antagonizing China and are cognizant of Beijing’s security deliberations, Australia’s security compunctions are notably different from the other three members. Australia’s Defense White Paper (2009), while naming China’s rise as a cause of concern in the shifting dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region, does not actively view Beijing through the same security lens as do Japan and India, which have unresolved maritime and territorial disputes, respectively, with China. Australia’s withdrawal from the Quad in 2007 has left an impression in New Delhi that Canberra could do so again, as its security concerns regarding China are not potent enough.
Despite the presence of AUSINDEX bilateral defense cooperation between India and Australia, the strategic trust between the two countries still requires work. Australia providing support to Pakistan in the Financial Action Task Force deliberations — which had kept Pakistan off the FATA watch list in the past — has been a source of irritation to India. Moreover, the failure to sufficiently share technologies bilaterally, such as Australia’s refusal of the over-the-horizon radars with India, has added to the trust deficit. In many ways, the addition of Australia to the Malabar exercises would indicate a level of synergy between India and Australia that is currently lacking, especially when considering the cost and risks of antagonizing China.
Another key consideration has been the downward trend of India-China ties, which New Delhi is keen not to worsen. The Doklam crisis, India’s refusal to support the Belt and Road Initiative, and China’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean Region are the core concerns for New Delhi that spurred its participation in the Quadrilateral 2.0. However China’s constructive role in diffusing the Korean crisis and its de-escalation efforts during in the aftermath of the Doklam have also been noted by India. Modi’s informal visit to Wuhan highlighted the importance of both countries as the primary entities of the new Asian Century, with convergent outlooks on Western interventionism and discriminatory trade regimes that led to the BRICS platform. Cognizant of their shared continental borders and the need for greater understanding of each other’s security concerns, India and China have held state and non-state level exchanges in 2018 to defuse tensions. In this context, adding Australia for an expanded Malabar exercise would stand contrary to the spirit of improving bilateral India-China relations.
The refusal to add Australia is bound to raise questions on the capacity of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as a cohesive security provider in the region. The deliberations regarding the structure of the Quad are still in a nascent stage; however, in various track 1.5 exchanges, commonly agreed views project the forum as a medium to ensure international law and order for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Discussions over tangible Quad cooperation have been focused on improving information-sharing and monitoring developments in the Indo-Pacific through existing mechanisms such as Australian participation in the Forum Fisheries Agency and the Pacific Boat Patrol Program in the Pacific, India’s structures in the Indian Ocean, the United States’ efforts in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, and Japan’s in the South China Sea. However, official statements from member countries have steered clear of projecting the Quadrilateral as a forum to counter China, though the formation has been based on checking increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
The decision to keep Australia out of the Malabar exercises is perhaps well-founded, to ensure that the Quad does not prematurely possess a direct associated military angle, which could provoke and severely increase Chinese security concerns in the Indo-Pacific. The basis of the Quad cooperation is to ensure enhanced interoperability to address common maritime concerns in the Indo-Pacific such as illegal fishing, piracy, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. While the strategic potential of the Quad is apparent, an overt correlation to the Malabar exercises by adding Australia is hasty and if undertaken, is contingent on the nature of China’s engagement turning aggressive in the region.
Asha Sundaramurthy is a research scholar in Indo-Pacific Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a Young Professional with the Vivekananda International Foundation.