In late April, almost lost in the hoopla surrounding the Modi-Xi summit, India decided that it would not allow Australia to participate in the upcoming Malabar naval exercise. The Malabar exercise is held annually, bringing together the navies of India, the US, and Japan. This year, as in the past, Australia had sought to participate, at least as an observer. Australia’s hopes for Malabar had been raised since the resuscitation of the India-US-Japan-Australia “Quad” last November, but were then dashed by New Delhi.
New Delhi, it seems, remains sceptical of Australia’s commitment as a strategic partner. It was, after all, Australia that backed out of the Quad’s first incarnation in 2007. But it’s now high time that India updated its thinking about Australia.
A lot has changed since 2007. In the years since, China began a much more aggressive campaign of coercion to assert dominance in its near seas, including with island-building in the South China Sea. And, with the West reeling from the global financial crisis, it launched its Belt and Road Initiative to expand its economic and strategic influence across Asia, including through some predatory practices. With this more aggressive China, the region now faces new structural realities.
In response, Australia recalibrated its defence policies. In successive policy statements — Defence White Papers in 2009, 2013, and 2016 — Australian governments from both major parties named China as the primary strategic challenge, drawing Beijing’s ire each time. They have committed to a costly acquisitions programme — which includes submarines, fighter aircraft, and air warfare destroyers — that stretches decades into the future. They spoke out against Chinese provocations when few others did, including against China’s 2013 declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone, and in support of the 2016 arbitration ruling in favour of the Philippines. The Australian military continues to conduct air and sea patrols of the South China Sea, which is frequently met with robust Chinese responses. And it has deepened its US alliance, with the basing of Marines in Darwin. These are not the actions of a hedging state.
In 2017, responding to Chinese aggression became a domestic issue. Revelations that Beijing had been covertly interfering in political processes was a wake-up call that elicited a sharp popular rebuke, and tough new legislation — again, despite China’s complaints. Just as the Doklam stand-off convinced many Indians that China may not be a friendly power, the political interference revelations hardened Australian popular opinion against China.
This is not to suggest that Australia will treat China as an inveterate enemy. There are still good reasons for cooperation on some issues, ranging from trade to North Korea. Indeed, India also sees merit in judicious accommodation of China — for example, with the highly publicised government directive for officials to not attend Dalai Lama-associated commemorations.
Was the denial of Australian participation in Malabar another Indian accommodation of China? The timing of the rejection — in the same week as the long-awaited Modi-Xi summit — suggests that Modi may have been signaling a pre-emptive sweetener for his China “reset”. China’s strategic policy is to prevent regional states coordinating against it — so India slow-rolling such an alignment suits Beijing’s interests perfectly. And while the Indian military routinely exercises bilaterally with the US, Japan, and Australia — suggesting that military relations with each are useful — it stopped short of joining them all in a high-profile grouping which would upset China. Even if New Delhi did not intend this as a concession to China, that may be the perception that gains traction around the region. And, of course, perceptions have real effects.
Regardless of Modi’s motivations, the denial of Australian participation in Malabar will harm the Quad. Malabar and the Quad are not the same thing, and Malabar is not a decisive litmus test for the Quad. The Quad, in these early days, is an empty platform which its members could use to build cooperation. Their military cooperation could eventually include combined training, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and other security operations. If the Quad is to engage in any of those military activities, then Australian participation in Malabar 2018 — even if it was billed as a non-permanent observer — would have been an easy, low-cost first step.
At a minimum, the denial is a missed opportunity to build momentum for the Quad. Worse, it may undermine the Quad’s credibility and reinforce widespread scepticism that it will ever amount to anything. New Delhi’s opposition to Australia even observing this naval exercise — a very low bar — in effect amounts to opposition to the Quad conducting any military activities, at least for now. Whether Modi intended this as a sop to China, or a snub to Australia, the effects of this denial reach further. Until India updates its views on Australia, it will further delay the efforts of like-minded powers to build a bulwark against Chinese coercion across the region.