In a major move coming after years of deliberation, Delhi has invited Australia to participate in this year’s Malabar naval exercises. The decision marks an important inflexion point not only in India’s bilateral relations with Australia but also in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, the new strategic geography stretching from the east coast of Africa to the waters of East Asia. The naval exercise, which is scheduled to take place next month in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, imparts a military dimension to the so-called Quadrilateral Dialogue Framework, involving India, US, Japan and Australia. Despite the eagerness of Australia to join Malabar, Delhi held back and limited it to India, US and Japan. The main reason behind Delhi’s hesitation was the concern that including Australia into the Quad might offend China’s rather fragile political sensitivity. Something, then, has clearly changed India’s calculus on China. As China’s muscular unilateralism rises and undermines India’s core interests across a broad range of issues — from territorial integrity to regional and multilateral interests — Delhi has had no option but to reconsider its strategic deference to Beijing. China’s Ladakh aggression this spring was possibly the last straw. The reluctance to turn the Quad into a military coalition, Delhi could not but note, produced no Chinese consideration for India’s concerns. The die is now cast.
The last time Australian naval ships joined Malabar was back in 2007, when it was a five-nation exercise involving India, US, Japan, Singapore and Australia. Until 2007, Malabar was an annual bilateral exercise with the US Navy that was launched in 1992. The Indian Navy’s decision 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. But the multilateral exercise in the Bay of Bengal produced vehement protests from China, which dubbed it as an “Asian NATO”. The external Chinese opposition found an internal political echo. The CPI(M) and the Left parties, which formed a sizeable part of the UPA coalition, demanded an end to the exercise. A flustered UPA government ordered an end to multilateral Malabar. This policy endured until 2015, when the NDA government invited Japan to join the annual Malabar exercises. It has now taken the next step towards quadrilateral military engagement.
Although the decision to welcome Australia into Malabar has come in the middle of the continuing confrontation with China in Ladakh, the naval exercise is not about changing the military equation in the Himalayan theatre. Delhi has no interest in bringing its Quad partners into India’s territorial battles against Beijing. It is about expanding India’s bilateral security ties with Australia, whose potential is immense. The military Quad is, above all, an important part of building a sustainable Indo-Pacific coalition that is capable of addressing the massive strategic imbalance generated by the rise of an aggressive Chinese party-state.
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