India, Australia kick off AUSINDEX-17: Should New Delhi, Canberra's growing closeness worry China?

India's naval ships Shivalik, Jyoti and Kamorta are on a port visit to Freemantle, Australia from 13 to 17 June, 2017 to participate in AUSINDEX-17, which is a bilateral maritime exercise with the Australian navy. The aim of the exercise is to enhance inter-operability and cooperation between the two forces.

This would be the second edition of the exercise. The first one was conducted in Visakhapatnam and the Bay of Bengal in 2015. After the success of the exercise, both the sides decided to make it a biennial event.

 India, Australia kick off AUSINDEX-17: Should New Delhi, Canberras growing closeness worry China?

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull. Reuters

"The visit of the Indian naval ships seeks to underscore India's peaceful presence and solidarity with friendly and harmonious countries towards ensuring good order in the maritime domain and to strengthen existing bonds between India and Australia," the Navy said in a statement.

The maritime exercises are in consonance with India's 'Act East' policy and seem to reaffirm Australia's commitment to the trilateral talks between Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra.

During Australian prime minister Malcom Turnbull's visit to India earlier this year, both the countries committed to deepening the bilateral defence and security partnership. They also welcomed the dialogue among Australia, India and Japan. They agreed to invest in trilateral consultations with third countries to enhance regional and global peace and security. India had, on various previous occasions, made its intention of conducting joint naval war games with Japan and Australia clear.

In 2015, New Delhi hosted the first ever high level trilateral meeting among the three countries. Maritime security, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and trilateral maritime cooperation in the Indian and Pacific Ocean was discussed by the participating countries. Australia's minister for defence marise Payne has also indicated towards hosting another trilateral meet in Canberra. This came after India withdrew from the quadrilateral – India, Japan, Australia and US - following a strong protest from Beijing in 2008. However, the US, Japan and India trilateral has gained momentum in recent years, with regular meetings and a variety of collective exercises, as this The Hindu article points out.

Australia withdrew from the quadrilateral alliance in 2008, citing concerns about China's reaction. Beijing issued demarches to New Delhi and Canberra and lodged a protest over their participation in the naval drills. The drills and the alliance was subsequently suspended as a precaution not to anger China. However, Canberra has now indicated that it is keen for a logistics support agreement with India and has also pitched for an observer status during this year's Malabar trilateral, as The Diplomat reported. The Malabar exercise will be conducted in the Bay of Bengal in July and Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force will also participate in the naval drill.

These initiatives by India and Australia can be seen as a a negative development for China. New Delhi and Canberra are wary of Beijing's infringement on maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region. These common concerns have strengthened the need for greater maritime cooperation between the two nations.

Australia is also a permanent member of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which brings together the local navies of Indian Ocean region. By coming together, both the nations can prove to be a threat to China's dominance in the region.

Following India's concerns about China's One Belt One Road initiative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), with support from Japan. Australia, among other countries, also sent a representative for the consultation process. Beijing has been suspicious of the trilateral engagement and lodged protest over Japan's participation. It is expected to closely monitor the exercise.

However, when considering whether or not this maritime activity will worry China, it must be borne in mind that the navies of Australia and India are nowhere near as well-stocked as their Chinese equivalent.

Beijing is likely to worry only if the strategic quadrilateral — involving Australia, India, Japan and the US — as alluded to by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was to actually come to fruition. But with Donald Trump in the White House, that looks beyond even a remote possibility.

Updated Date: Jun 15, 2017 20:31:07 IST