In a significant development that has been through multiple rounds of headlines and controversy, India might be finally getting ready to invite Australia to the Malabar naval exercise, according to media reports. The next edition of the exercise is scheduled to take place around July or August this year.
The question of inviting Australia to the exercise, which currently includes India, Japan and the United States, has been controversial. India has for several years resisted bringing Australia on board, reportedly because of possible negative reactions from China. The fact is that the first and only time Australia has been part of this exercise was in 2007, when both Australia and Singapore were invited to join India, Japan and the United States.
Nonetheless, if India finally agrees to invite Australia for the 2020 Malabar naval exercises, it will be a welcome break and would suggest the growing seriousness and synergy among four key Indo-Pacific powers – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.
The India-U.S. Malabar series of naval exercises go back to 1992 and became a regular annual feature since 2002, after it was suspended following India’s nuclear tests in 1998. The initial series of exercises were held off the coast of Malabar, and hence the name of the series but these naval engagements have been held in other areas as well including the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and in the Western Pacific.
In 2007, there were two editions of the Malabar exercise – one held in the Western Pacific along with Japan in April 2007 and a second one in the Bay of Bengal with the participation of Australia, Japan and Singapore in September 2007. That year also saw the first meeting of the Quadrilateral group – India, Japan, Australia and the United States.
China’s displeasure at the forming of the group – it sent a demarche to all four countries – ended the Quadrilateral group and also ended the practice of such naval exercises. Neither India nor Australia was willing to cross China. So, for the next few years, Malabar reverted to being a U.S.-India naval exercise.
Japan has joined Malabar sporadically for several years before becoming a permanent member in 2015. Bringing Tokyo into the mix was an important strategic signaling itself. It indicated the growing strategic convergence among the three nations on the one hand, while also illustrating the fact that the three countries recognized the need to undertake joint exercises to make interoperability a viable proposition.
Around the same time, relations between New Delhi and Canberra too were improving, but the apprehension of Australia’s dependability (after the 2007 experience) made India cautious. But other reasons could have played into this as well, including the fact that India wanted to first be confident of the durability of the existing trilateral exercise before expanding it.
In truth, neither of these explanations can satisfactorily account for India’s reluctance to move on this front if New Delhi were serious enough. If India were serious about strategic messaging to China, it would not waste any opportunity because fearing Chinese negative reaction and appeasing China has not brought India any goodwill previously. China’s behavior does not automatically call for any restraint; equally, if not more important, was New Delhi’s own reluctance to antagonize Beijing.
But as the Quad diplomatic group has revived, Australia has sought to be part of the Malabar exercises. Indeed, Australia appears to have pushed hard for an invite. This is not entirely surprising: It also fits with the growing strategic interaction between India and Australia that now includes on both bilateral as well as multinational military engagements. Kakadu, AUSINDEX, and the Black Carillon military exercises are illustrative of this. In January 2019, a defense source is reported to have said that including Australia and engaging in a Quad naval exercise would lead to sending a political message to China, something for which India apparently is not ready.
A year later, India now reportedly appears to be more confident about inviting Australia to the naval exercise. Several recent developments could have contributed to this development. One, the upgrading of the Quad engagements to the foreign minister level is reflective of a growing seriousness with which Quad members are treating each other. This can be viewed as part of that wider strategic development.
Two, India’s bilateral strategic partnership with Australia has improved dramatically in recent years. The 2+2 strategic dialogue, the military exercises, and the regular political and security conversations between India and Australia have strengthened India’s confidence about Canberra as a security partner. There were as many as 39 bilateral interactions in 2019 alone.
Three, despite two informal summits between India and China, the two sides do not appear to have made any substantial progress in improving their relations. Indeed, China has continued to make inroads into South Asia with little consideration for India’s concerns. Beijing’s Belt and Road push in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar has given it a greater foothold in Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal.
Four, India’s own comfort level in building strategic relationships has grown and it is evident in the manner in which India has gradually expanded Malabar to include Japan first and now possibly Australia. India also engages Australia through another trilateral – India, Indonesia and Australia. Therefore, India’s ease of doing business with Australia in the strategic realm has gone up several notches even in the last three years since the quad has made a comeback.
Five and lastly, the shared concerns among the four countries about the future of the Indo-Pacific has possibly been the biggest factor pushing India to expand the trilateral. The convergence around these notions of broader regional order have reinforced the shared interests between them and also acted as another boost for developing ties.
An expanded Malabar series of exercises is obviously important in terms of developing coherent strategic approaches to addressing many of the region’s security challenges. On the diplomatic side, a useful first step was the Quad ministerial level consultations. And on the defense side now, further engagement in naval exercises could strengthen interoperability among the four partner navies, which ultimately will be important in addressing the very issues they are speaking about.