Malabar invitation to Australia suggests India is revising its strategic assessment of China

India believes firmly in the bilateral framework when it comes to solving border issues and does not expect (or will never allow) Quad partners to meddle in the territorial conflicts with China.

Sreemoy Talukdar October 22, 2020 10:36:00 IST
Malabar invitation to Australia suggests India is revising its strategic assessment of China

Fighter jets are seen on the US aircraft carrier John C Stennis during joint military exercise called Malabar in 2016. Reuters

India’s invitation to Australia for the Malabar Naval Exercise was overdue. The fact that it took so long for India to give the nod, despite Australia’s explicit eagerness and implicit pressure from the US and Japan, should tell us that it wasn’t taken lightly.

It is unwise, of course, to see the decision solely through the prism of a signalling mechanism towards China, because it is also the logical result of India’s intensifying defence partnership with Australia. However, there is no denying that the move is aimed primarily at China and is the result of a change in India’s strategic assessment of the Xi Jinping regime.

When 24th edition commences in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal in November, it would mark the second time Australia has joined the Malabar. The 13-year gap reflects the geopolitical disruption caused by China’s rise and the hardening of attitude among nations alarmed by China’s expansionism, mercantilism, coercive diplomacy and rogue behaviour.

Australia’s Mandarin-speaking former prime minister Kevin Rudd shoulders much of the blame for the disbanding of a fledgeling Quad and pulling out of Malabar after just one season when the Royal Australian Navy along with a Singaporean contingent had joined Indian, American, and Japanese warships in the Bay of Bengal in 2007. That was the first time that Malabar, that started as an annual bilateral exercise between India and the US in 1992, had turned into a five-nation drill.

That may not have been a strategic move. It has been suggested that “Indian Navy’s decision (in 2007) to convene the five-nation exercise was probably more administrative than geopolitical. Rather than have separate exercises with each of these partners, it was considered sensible to combine them into one,” as an editorial in Indian Express points out.

Be that as it may, the maritime exercise — that had come a few months after mid-level officials from India, Australia, Japan and the US met for the first time in May 2007 in an informal diplomatic initiative — triggered such hypersensitive reaction from a spooked China that in the following year, Stephen Smith, Rudd’s foreign minister in Australia’s new Labor government, during a visit to China told reporters that “Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature.” 

The killing of the diplomatic initiative naturally spelt the end of the maritime initiative and Malabar returned to its bilateral format until 2015 when Japan was formally inducted into the drill.

The Rudd administration, that had also overturned the decision taken by the John Howard government to sell uranium to India, was obviously trying to avoid injuring China’s delicate sensibilities at a time when it was busy wooing Beijing. Financial Times in 2009 had called Rudd’s “Sinophilia” “a potential political liability.”

For killing the Quad — as scholar Tanvi Madan notes “without substantial internal review and reportedly unilaterally” — Australia became the fall guy. Nevertheless, it was already clear that quad was an idea ahead of its time and the appetite for it was diminishing among its constituents.

In Japan, prime minister Shinzo Abe, who had proposed the idea of the Quad was forced to step down owing to ill health, reducing Japan’s interest.

In India, alarmed at China’s protests and accusations that the US is trying to raise an Asian NATO, communists who had lent support to the UPA government was sandbagging prime minister Manmohan Singh over Malabar. Singh, who had staked his premiership on the India-US civil nuclear deal, was not ready to open another front at home. Ahead of his first trip to China in 2008, Singh “made it clear to the Chinese leadership that India is not part of any so-called contain China effort.”

The death of Quad 1.0 arose from a belief that a quadrilateral grouping that may acquire strategic or military dimensions — or may be open to such accusations from Beijing — provides China with an excuse to militarise itself and destabilize the region. India, that shares a long border with China, embarked on a policy of strategic deference based on the calculation that by pandering to China’s sensibilities, it may be able to convince Beijing that New Delhi isn’t a threat, and consequently China would see no reason to trample on India’s foot. This policy gives China veto power over the actions of its competitors.

This was never going to work. Given the fundamentally adversarial nature of Sino-Indian relationship, where the rise in the same strategic geography of one civilizational nation-state must necessarily contest the influence of other, not only did this policy fail in its objectives, it sent a wrong message. China interpreted India’s deference as weakness, never reciprocated India’s honouring of Chinese sensibilities, offered no concessions, trampled on India’s core concerns and continued with its balancing behaviour by propping up terror-sponsoring Pakistan, eroding India’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and running roughshod over India’s regional and multilateral pursuits.

China demands deference from India on One China policy — it warned New Delhi on Tuesday over reports that India is considering a trade deal with Taiwan — but shows no commitment to a One India policy. While the Narendra Modi government went slow on the Quad, refused to admit Australia to Malabar, asked government officials to skip Dalai Lama events and allowed the trade deficit to grow, China kept up its episodic destabilising behaviour along the LAC, repeatedly blocked India’s entry into the 48-member Nuclear Supplier’s Group and played ball with Pakistan to tie down India in South Asian theatre.

Chinese unilateralism and belief in a hierarchical power structure, coupled with the failure of other actors to hold it accountable has made it easy for Beijing to bully others and impose one-sided relationships, resulting in the very geopolitical instability that Quad 1.0 members wanted to avoid by not ‘provoking’ China.

As Australian diplomat and policy wonk Rory Medcalf writes in Australian Foreign Affairs, “the main criticism of the Quad back then was that it would needlessly provoke China down a perilous path of military modernisation and destabilising behaviour. Yet Beijing chose such a road anyway. The perils the Quad’s critics thought it would invoke ended up arising in its absence.”

India’s announcement on Malabar, that adds a new dimension to the naval exercise and elevates the Quad consultative framework into a strategic coalition of maritime powers, is an indication that through its acts of territorial aggression, revisionism and killing of Indian soldiers at Galwan, China has managed to push India to a corner where New Delhi no longer feels restrained by China’s rules and is unwilling any more to mask its balancing behaviour.

The language of India’s defence ministry statement makes such a turn explicit. The cautious restraint that marks India’s formal statements on Quad or other multilateral or minilateral engagements centred around China, has given way to a bolder declaration of intent. Two paragraphs are of special interest. The Ministry of Defence states that India “seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain” and mentions “increased defence cooperation with Australia” that led to Malabar 2020 extending invitation to Australia.

Second, India makes it clear that “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” — words that segue with America’s free and open Indo-Pacific policy that seeks to contain China’s hegemonic ambitions in the South China Sea.

Notably, India’s action has drawn bipartisan support in the US where even amid polarising presidential polls, both Republican and Democrat senators have issued a letter addressed to India’s ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu “expressing strong support of India’s decision to formally invite Australia to participate in the annual Exercise Malabar.”

China’s official reaction to this development so far has been muted. Foreign ministry spokesperson has merely said that has “noticed this development. China believes that military cooperation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability.”

Global Times, the state-controlled English daily that may or may not be mirroring the Chinese Communist Party position, has published several articles on the development. One ‘advices’ New Delhi that “it is clearly against India’s interests to abandon its strategic autonomy and play a pawn of the US just because of India-China border issues” and issues a reminder that “there is no place for the QUAD group in the China-India border issues.”

Another take contends that “it is absolutely impossible to formalize the QUAD into a NATO-like alliance, or ‘Asian NATO.’ The US could establish an ‘Asian NATO’ with Japan and Australia in the Western Pacific region. But such an aim won’t be reached if Washington wants to count New Delhi in.”

The last contention isn’t too far from the truth. The US has been dropping large hints of late about crystalizing the Quad into a formal security alliance. The US secretary of state mentioned it in a post-Quad interview to Asia Nikkei newspaper followed by his deputy Stephen Biegun in India on 12 October. On Tuesday, Biegun again broached the topic during a briefing to reporters, saying that “it is our view that in the passage of time, the Quad should become more regularized and at some point formalized as well as we really begin to understand what the parameters of this cooperation are and how we can regularize it.”

By inviting Australia to the Malabar exercise within a few days of foreign minister S Jaishankar travelling to Tokyo for the Quad ministerial meeting, India is signalling its willingness to give the alignment a permanent structure. However, it must equally be noted that India will always retain a multipolar approach to the Quad, and the architecture will survive so long as it remains multilateral in character instead of the Cold War-era hub-and-spoke framework with the US at the centre.

If China is one driver of the Malabar decision, the other part relates to India’s growing strategic convergence with Australia. Led by shared concerns over China’s rise and the destabilizing impact of Chinese coercive strategies in a region of prime importance for both players, India and Australia are slowly getting over their mutual distrust — exemplified through their recent signing of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement that makes it possible for both nations to grant access to each other’s military bases in order to facilitate mutual defence exchanges and exercises.

As director of US Initiative at ORF Dhruva Jaishankar writes in The Print, “The Australia–India defence relationship now encompasses almost every major area of military partnership, namely (i) strategic dialogues, coordination, and intelligence exchanges, including those involving third countries; (ii) military exercises involving ground, air, and especially maritime forces that reflect a growing degree of interoperability; (iii) military-to-military exchanges and training; and (iv) defence commerce and technological cooperation.”

This greater trust in the relationship comes through in the Australian statement accepting India’s Malabar invitation. It quotes Australian foreign minister Marise Payne as saying: “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 is also worth noting that while the Malabar move comes amid the border standoff and is meant primarily as a signalling mechanism and a note of defiance towards China, India has no interest in conflating the two theatres. It believes firmly in the bilateral framework when it comes to solving border issues and does not expect (or will never allow) Quad partners to meddle in the territorial conflicts with China. Malabar complements the Quad, and its evolution enables India to project its power deep into the Indo-Pacific, mitigating the strategic imbalance. It also sends a signal that India will no longer allow its pragmatism to be misinterpreted as weakness by China.

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