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Quest for strategic leverage over China: Why India doesn't want to include Australia in Malabar exercises just yet

  • The US-India-Japan Malabar naval exercise is held annually.

  • India has rejected Australia's request to be included in the Malabar naval exercise five times.

  • It is unclear whether India is trying to appease China by keeping Australia out of the naval drills.

  • Australia's former foreign minister Julie Bishop had reiterated that Canberra is 'very interested' in joining the Malabar exercises.

In his seminal essay 'China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier', Princeton University professor and China scholar Perry Link had elaborated on the nature of Chinese repression. He had not compared China's intimidatory tactics and its authoritarianism with "a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon" but had described it as a "giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier".

"Normally the great snake doesn't move. It doesn't have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is 'You yourself decide', after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments — all quite 'naturally'," he wrote.

In the 2002 essat, Link had predicted that as China grows and seeks to rise, these tactics, previously aimed at Chinese citizens, would increasingly be projected overseas.

 Quest for strategic leverage over China: Why India doesnt want to include Australia in Malabar exercises just yet

Representational image. PTI

What Link may have not foreseen is that China's assertiveness under President Xi Jinping would become more aggressive and audacious in such a short time, shaking off the 'purposeful vagueness' of its authoritarianism that defined the pre-Xi era. From Doklam to Taiwan to Canada, we need not stretch our necks too far.

This preface provides context to India's decision to, once again, reject Australia's decision for inclusion in the US-India-Japan annual Malabar naval exercise. There could be many reasons why India is unwilling to add Australia to the Malabar mix, but the signs — deliberate or inadvertent — that indicate the motivation behind the decision are disturbing.

According to The Hindu, India is wary of including Australia in the trilateral exercise to "avoid sending a political message" to Beijing, even though China apparently has put no pressure on India. The article quotes a "defence source" as saying: "If we do a quad exercise, it has political messaging. So what is the big value in having that exercise as opposed to Malabar? So we strengthen the bilateral engagement, focus on practical engagement, have closer dialogue bilaterally and plurilaterally with Australia."

'Quad' here refers to the quadrilateral grouping of the four Indo-Pacific democracies.

This is the fifth time — at least for an observer — that India has rejected Australia's request to be included in the tri-nation naval exercise. Going by The Hindu report, it is unclear whether India wants to avoid irritating China and be respectful of its 'sensitivities', or whether New Delhi is unconvinced of Canberra's China policy.

If it is the former, then it is a fundamental misreading of Chinese worldview that respects strength and looks down upon weakness. Any signal from New Delhi that it is anxious to accommodate China by adjusting policies keeping its 'delicate feelings' in mind will play into the Chinese paradox. The ever-expanding Chinese 'sensibilities' may readjust to lay down new red lines for New Delhi to follow, and these may become additional tools for Beijing to use as leverage.

If China has no concern for India's interests and sensitivities on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Nuclear Suppliers Group, Masood Azhar or Arunachal Pradesh and is in no mood for a reciprocal relationship, then China is likely to misinterpret unilateral adjustments that cater solely to Chinese sensitivities, and Beijing may feel more encouraged to disregard Indian interests.

On the second point, it is difficult to imagine that India is unconvinced of Australia's intentions after the country has repeatedly, and with some degree of clarity, laid down its Indian Ocean priorities.

Australia's former foreign minister Julie Bishop had reiterated, during an interview with The Hindu last year, that Canberra is "very interested" in joining the Malabar exercises, describing India as a "significant strategic partner" with whom Australia shares "converging interests, particularly in the Indian Ocean" and has identified security and defence ties, economic engagement and people-to-people links" as the underpinnings of the relationship.

At the Raisina Dialogue held recently in Delhi, Foreign Minister of Australia Marise Payne elaborated on Canberra's Indian Ocean policy that advocates close partnership with India, focuses on building stronger regional institutions and norms, seeks India's cooperation in supporting smaller nations to withstand coercive 'debt-trap' diplomacy and promotes economic growth and market liberalisation, as Brookings India fellow Dhruva Jaishankar points out in his piece for Lowy Institute.

Payne's speech laid bare Australia's priorities in maintaining its stake in the Indo-Pacific, but it equally stressed on the nature of bilateral relationship. At the heart of it, she said, "lie common values" because both nations are "free, open and independent democracies; champions of international law; supporters of an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific; and firm believers that 'might is not right'."

There is certainly an apparent dichotomy in India's position on Australia. The bilateral relationship has expanded to now include joint exercises across all three services, shared values and interests in upholding the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific theatre and ensuring regional stability. This is offset by India's peculiar reluctance to let Australia join the Malabar drills despite repeated requests. New Delhi seems to view the trilateral naval exercise as some sort of a political tool.

Some analysts believe that even though Australia had pulled out of the 'quad's' first version in 2007 in deference to China, since then, Beijing's aggression and coercion have imposed new structural realities on the region. Arzan Tarapore, a non-resident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington DC, wrote in The Indian Express that Australia has also recalibrated its defence policies since 2007, and there now exists a bipartisan consensus that China is the "primary strategic challenge". Tarapore believes that denial of Australian participation in Malabar will "harm the quad" and is a "missed opportunity".

If we assume that India is being deferential to China in rejecting Australia's legitimate request, it becomes hard to explain why India has continued to stand up to China in certain ways (while it might have stood down in some cases). India's balancing initiatives in response to China's assertiveness in the past year alone have been quite potent.

As Dhruva Jaishankar has expanded in a Twitter thread, India has continued the 2+2 dialogue with the US, while simultaneously holding the trilateral (India-Japan-Australia) dialogue and the India-Australia-Indonesia talks, participating in Australian air exercises (Pitch Black), continuing the AUSINDEX (the third iteration of the bilateral naval exercise), and maintaining military-to-military contacts, such as INS Sahyadri taking part in international maritime exercise, KAKADU.

Not to forget the fact that the 'quad' has met three times in 18 months.

Gradualism might be one way of looking at India's decision regarding Malabar. Given that India's strategic options against China are already quite limited in terms of economic, military, diplomatic or geopolitical influence, Malabar and the 'quad' provide India with precious leverage that could be deployed as signaling tools. China's concern with President of the United States Donald Trump and the trajectory of its US ties has caused Beijing to soften its stance towards India. But this apparent benevolence might be temporary. To deal with Beijing's coercive strategies in the future, adding a military angle to the 'quad' or including Australia in the Malabar drills to reinforce it could work.

The effectiveness of this strategy will depend on external circumstances, such as Chinese behavior and India's ability to navigate the US-China dynamic in a way that suits its own interests. There could be more such signaling in the offing.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 10:45:58 IST