Malabar Exercise: Inviting Australia
India is planning to invite Australia to join its annual Malabar naval exercise as it seeks to strengthen tighten military cooperation with other Asia-Pacific countries amid rising tensions with China.
• The stage is set for Australia to be part of the next Malabar naval exercise.
• The exercise will bring together the navies of India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. in the Bay of Bengal at the end of the year 2020.
• According to the diplomatic sources, the move would be a logical next step after the virtual summit between the two countries, where they signed the crucial Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) for reciprocal access to bases, medical and training facilities, spares and fuel.
Australia last participated in what was originally an India-U.S. bilateral exercise in 2007.
Japan’s participation was regularized in 2015, but India had been cold toward Australia’s wishes to make Malabar a quadrilateral exercise, wary of provoking Beijing. This wariness has now dissipated.
Last year’s bilateral AUSINDEX naval exercises were the largest and most complex since they were established in 2015, with a notable focus on anti-submarine warfare, given China’s increasing capabilities in this area.
While Australia may like to project itself as a two-ocean power, in reality the Indian Ocean is Australia’s second sea.
Australia’s population — and export markets — is heavily weighted toward the Pacific and its maritime and security perspectives obviously follow.
Australia would also recognize that the Indian Ocean is an increasingly contested geostrategic space, and be wary of China’s ambitions and increasing capabilities through the region, as well as the influence it is developing in states of the South Asian littoral.
While its own capacities in the Indian Ocean may not be extensive, Australia should be willing to support New Delhi’s self-identification as the rightful resident power in the Indian Ocean.
China’s recent assertive behaviour is proving to be a major strategic blunder.
It is hardening the attitudes of other countries toward Beijing, and making it more difficult for China to exploit its growing power.
One of the clearest examples of this is India being increasingly drawn toward the orbit of the United States and its allies.
India had already been inching toward this reality, but as its belligerent neighbour makes consistent incursions into its territory, the nation’s instinctive drive to remain unaligned to major power blocs is now being seen in New Delhi as no longer serving India’s interests.
The invitation to Australia to become a participant in the annal Malabar Naval Exercise, alongside the United States and Japan, is the latest demonstration of this movement.
It will generate a formal and practical security application for the long-discussed “Quad” grouping of the four maritime-capable Indo-Pacific democracies.
China has seen the growing security cooperation between the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia as a containment strategy.
It is likely that Beijing will object to such a development, but it’s also likely that New Delhi has factored these objections into its decision-making.
The expansion of Malabar is a clear sign of the concerns that India and Australia — as well as Japan and the United States — have about the less secure environment that is emerging in the Indo-Pacific. None of these countries should be shy about admitting this.
Canberra and New Delhi are gravitating toward maritime cooperation because it is the area where both countries have considerable natural advantages, with significant coastlines as well as well-placed island territories.