New Delhi: After 13 years of dilly-dallying, Australia will finally rejoin the trilateral Malabar maritime exercise that includes India, Japan and the US and is set to take place later next month, ThePrint has learnt.
The decision was firmed up at the last informal meeting of the Quad countries — US, Japan, Australia and India — that took place in Tokyo on 6 October, diplomatic and defence sources told ThePrint.
This year the exercise will take place in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea, at a time India and China have been locked in a stand-off at the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for five months now.
In the past few years, the annual maritime exercise has been conducted off the coast of Guam in the Philippine Sea in 2018 and the coast of Japan in 2019.
“As India seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy,” said a statement by the Ministry of Defence.
“The participants of Exercise Malabar 2020 are engaging to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain. They collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules based international order.”
The statement also noted that this year the exercise has been planned on a ‘non-contact – at sea’ format.
“The exercise will strengthen the coordination between the Navies of the participating countries,” it said.
Experts noted that the announcement shows a hardening of stance against Beijing in Canberra, with more nations beginning to push back against China’s aggression. They also pointed out that it puts India and Australia centrestage in the Indo-Pacific region, and paves the way for more regional cooperation.
India & Australia’s China factor
While it was decided in 2019 that Australia will be formally invited to the exercise with Canberra beginning to stand up to China, the decision was only firmed up at the last meeting of the Quad, sources said.
According to the sources, India was unwilling to make the announcement formally as it was engaged in military as well as diplomatic talks with China for complete disengagement and de-escalation at the border. However, New Delhi is now all set to formally announce to the world it will align with countries such as the US, Australia and Japan that are willing to “face challenges posed by China”.
Australia’s Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said Exercise Malabar 2020 marked a milestone opportunity for the Australian Defence Force.
“High-end military exercises like MALABAR are key to enhancing Australia’s maritime capabilities, building interoperability with our close partners, and demonstrating our collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Reynolds said.
“Exercise MALABAR also showcases the deep trust between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests.”
According to Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, Marise Payne, the announcement was another important step in Australia’s deepening relationship with India.
“This builds on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, to which Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Modi agreed on 4 June 2020, and which I progressed with my counterpart, Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar, this month when we met in Tokyo.
“It will bolster the ability of India, Australia, Japan and the United States to work together to uphold peace and stability across our region,” she added.
The Malabar naval exercise started in 1992 as a bilateral exercise between the Indian Navy and the US Navy. Japan joined in 2015.
Talks were on for over a decade to include Australia in the exercise. However, due to Canberra’s close ties with Beijing, the matter was put on a back burner, according to diplomatic sources.
Australia’s participation in the exercise at this point shows that signalling is going on both sides, said a senior Navy officer.
“The joining of Australia in the Malabar exercises along with the US, Japan and Indian naval forces will be a signalling of cooperation in the region. Australia has been seeking to join the Malabar naval exercise since the last few years. The Quad is not a military alliance, it is a government-to-government cooperative mechanism, in which naval exercises play a crucial role in strengthening it,” the officer told ThePrint.
Defence sources said the move is expected to irk China. The last time Australia was part of the exercise was in 2007, a move that resulted in Beijing formally objecting to the inclusion.
The Indian government had since not invited Australia despite the Navy having no objections, according to sources in the force. They added that the Navy was open to including Australia since more participation meant deeper engagement with all countries involved.
Earlier this year, the Navy suggested including Australia, whose participation was also being pushed for by the US.
Experts say India’s message to China now clear
With this, India and Australia are now key countries in the larger Indo-Pacific construct given that countries are beginning to push back against Chinese aggression, including the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping.
This year, the Malabar exercise will take place on the heels of the third round of the India-US 2+2 dialogue, likely to happen on 26-27 October.
“Today’s decision clearly shows the fact India is now serious about the Quad and countries are willing to come together and strengthen maritime security cooperation, coupled with enhanced interoperability,” said said former diplomat Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow at Gateway House.
Bhatia added that Australia’s inclusion could potentially accelerate talks between India and China on reducing border tensions.
Former Navy chief, Admiral Arun Prakash (retd) told ThePrint that Australia’s decision indicates a hardening of stance given that the country has, and continues to have, a very strong trade relationship with China.
“Mainly for this reason, it has been chary about not giving offence to China and remained ambivalent about its relationship with India and the Quad,” he said.
Australia had withdrawn from the process in July 2007 under former prime minister John Howard.
“Against this background, Australia’s eagerness to join Malabar indicates a hardening of attitude towards China in Canberra,” he added.
“While this is unlikely to have a direct impact on the China-India stand-off, it is certainly a show of solidarity and a sign that Indo-Pacific nations opposed to China’s hegemonic conduct are coming together in common cause. As far as India is concerned, it sends out a positive signal that ‘India is not alone’,” he added.
Admiral Prakash also added that while it may seem a symbolic move, it will also have substantive geopolitical implications not only in the current China-India face-off, but also in the larger Indo-Pacific context where China is flexing its muscle.
(With inputs from Snehesh Alex Philip, New Delhi)