New Delhi's decision to exclude Canberra from upcoming trilateral Malabar naval exercises with Japan and the US underscores the Indian Ocean's delicate strategic balance
When India recently decided against allowing Australia to join the upcoming Malabar joint naval exercises it holds annually with the United States and Japan, the move immediately sparked speculation that New Delhi’s exclusion aimed to appease China.
China had recently warned against expanding the annual Malabar Exercises naval exercises, which first started between the US and India in 1992 and with a steady expansion of operations and scope came to include Japan in 2015.
Reports said that Australia formally wrote to the Indian defense ministry in January asking if it could send naval ships to join the exercises, scheduled for July, as an observer. Strategic analysts saw the request as a first step towards Australia’s eventual membership in the annual war games amid growing great power competition in the Indian Ocean.
Canberra’s Defense Department told Asia Times that, “Australia has not been invited to participate in or observe Exercise [Malabar] 2017,” but that it was interested to join “in order to increase interoperability and our common understanding of procedures for maritime security operations.”
Officials from India, Australia and Japan told Reuters that India blocked the proposal and suggested instead that Canberra send officers to watch the exercises in the Indian Ocean’s Bay of Bengal from the decks of the three participating countries’ warships. Australia’s Defense Department told Asia Times it had also been denied observer status.
However, when Indian ships were docked last week in Perth’s Fremantle port city in advance of the bilateral AUSINDEX exercises with the Royal Australian Navy on June 17, Rear Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta said a final decision on Canberra’s participation in Malabar had not yet been made.
“We are waiting to hear the outcome as much as you are,” he said, referring to ongoing government deliberations in New Delhi. Other officers speaking informally during the visit said they were not sure why Australia had not been included, especially considering the AUSINDEX exercises aim at improving bilateral interoperability.
The ship visit, attended by a public yoga event and navy big band show, aimed to demonstrate cordial and improving ties.
The refusal comes somewhat surprisingly amid a decided bilateral warming trend. Australia and India have made recent moves to improve their strategic relations, seen by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to New Delhi in April.
On the occasion, the two sides issued a joint statement affirming their commitment to a “peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific based on mutual respect and cooperation” and “common interests in ensuring maritime security and the safety of sea lines of communication.”
Those commitments are underscored by ongoing army, navy and air force talks, Special Forces and army bilateral exercises and foreign affairs dialogue.
Analysts see the two sides’ stated commitment to upholding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and freedom of navigation as code for warning China against extending its rising assertiveness in the contested South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.
“There is genuine value for all parties in Australia being included in Malabar, but for India there are more reasons not to be hasty,” said Troy Lee-Brown, who studies Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific at the University of Western Australia. “India would possibly rather build trust bilaterally with Australia, first and foremost.”
At the same time, India is known to be concerned that China could accelerate its activities in the Indian Ocean where it is building major infrastructure, including strategic ports, in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Analysts quoted by Reuters viewed New Delhi’s refusal to allow Canberra to participate in Malabar as a conciliatory signal to Beijing.
Dhruva Jaishankar, a researcher at Brookings India, a think tank, believes India-Australia ties should be taken slowly and wonders exactly what the addition of Australia to this year’s trilateral exercise would achieve.
“It’s more of a question of what exact purpose including Australia would serve, and whether the timing is appropriate,” he said, noting there are already three overlapping trilateral strategic dialogues: US-Japan-Australia, US-Japan-India, and India-Japan-Australia.
“It’s unclear what purpose a quadrilateral meeting – let alone exercises – would serve, even if the underlying logic is perhaps stronger today than in the recent past,” he said.
India has notably not joined China’s One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative, likely out of growing fears of being encircled by China’s growing reach, both by land and at sea, in an Indian Ocean region New Delhi has long viewed as its sphere of influence.
Those concerns have been underscored at sea by at least six submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean since 2013, including dockings in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, countries with which India has rocky relations.
Australia has its own worries about China’s rising naval strength, though to date it has declined to take sides in the South China Sea disputes. Canberra does, however, support US freedom of navigation activities in the crucial maritime theater.
Alan Eggleston, a former Western Australia Liberal Party politician and now honorary research fellow at Perth’s Murdoch University, has estimated in his writings that “China could cripple Australia’s economy within three weeks if it curbed key shipping routes.”
China’s rising ambitions in nearby waters could also jeopardize the security of Australia’s US$150 billion, US-invested Gorgon liquefied natural gas plant in the Pilbara section of Western Australia which holds an estimated 2.6 billion cubic feet of gas in the Indian Ocean, according to Eggleston.
“US investors have expressed concern about the level of [China’s] defense presence in the area, as have other bodies such as the Pilbara Regional Council,” he said, referring to a group that advocates for the mineral-rich Pilbara region, from where most of Australia’s iron ore is derived.
“I would have thought a closer relationship with India would be beneficial to both India and Australia in the longer term,” Eggleston said, referring to India’s decision to exclude Australia from this year’s Malabar exercises.
Recent history is no doubt a factor. Australia withdrew from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that included India, the US and Japan in 2007 during pro-China Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s tenure. Australia’s move was interpreted at the time as a nod to China’s concerns that the informal dialogues aimed to contain its influence.
India clearly does not wish to see another Australian reversal, especially given China’s growing economic importance to the country, a robust trade and investment relationship that continues to grow despite a recent mining boom slowdown caused by lower global commodity prices. Despite the slump, China remains Australia’s largest trading partner.
Some analysts see India as a useful strategic counterbalance to that economic reliance. Lee-Brown says that India is “crucially important” to Australia “if we think of the Indo-Pacific as stretching the strategic environment across two oceans, then the efficacy of having India on board as a self-proclaimed net security provider in the Indian Ocean is pivotal.”