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Is it The Right Time to Include Australia in Malabar Naval Exercise?
Discussions are ongoing regarding the inclusion of Australian navy in the annual trilateral Malabar exercise. Coming in the time of increased tensions along Line of Actual Control(LoAC), it is seen as India’s response to Chinese aggressive maneuvers. If Australia is included this will be the first time since 2007, Quadrilateral countries(India, Japan, USA, Australia-QUAD) will come together militarily making Malabar a maritime Quadrilateral.
Malabar Naval exercise:
Started in 1992 as bilateral exercise between India and USA navies. It was later expanded to include Japan in 2015. Singapore and Australia participated as non permanent participants in 2007. Australia has shown interest in being a participant since 2017.
It is done annually in the Bay of bengal or Arabian sea. But in some years, it was done in Pacific ocean in USA and Japanese territories.
Chinese objections to inclusion of Australia:
China views the maritime quadrilateral as a coalition of democracies and Asian NATO, to counter it. China views this as a threat not only in Indian ocean but also in Pacific ocean especially South China sea. Hence it opposed expansion of Malabar exercise. In 2007 when it was a 5 nation exercise, it sent demarches to India and Australia.
Indian position and arguments for inclusion of Australia:
India has maintained that Malabar exercise and also QUAD is not with the intention of containing any one country. India has emphasized freedom of navigation and overflight; rules based order as its intended outcomes. In pursuance of the same, to prevent wrong signals, India has not accepted Australian involvement in 2018 and 2019 exercises.
But experts point out Chinese aggressive postures need to be considered in changing Indian maritime policy. Following actions highlight these:
- Submarine visiting colombo in 2014
- Chinese Warships visiting Male, Maldives in Aug 2017
- Chinese naval bases in Indian ocean include Djibouti and proposals in Gwadar, Maldives, Myanmar(Kyaukpyu, Cocos Island).
These actions make Chinese intentions suspect. Considering this possible encirclement of India(string of pearls), a proactive approach is proposed to counter gradual Chinese naval forays into Indian ocean.
For such a proactive strategy, including Australia in Malabar is seen as a right step. It sends signals that if Chinese continue to posture aggressively against India on land or sea then India is ready to increase the threshold. Considering the clashes in Galwan valley, it is opined that time is right for this step.
Arguments against inclusion of Australia right now:
- Inclusion may lead to Chinese apprehension and threaten negotiations for truce along LoAC.
- If China responds aggressively in Eastern Indian ocean, it can open a new front in the India-China conflict.
- Strategically, India desires increased technological capabilitiesto check Chinese threats(submarines, aircraft carriers etc) in Indian ocean. USA and Japan on the other hand have priority of rules based order in Indo-pacific. India is yet to obtain lethal technologies from USA like anti submarine tech, despite talks of defense cooperation. Most cooperation is in non lethal weapons like Surveillance Guardian drones. Without acquiring lethal technologies, Indian deterrence capabilities will not increase even with QUAD maritime cooperation
- Operationally, India and Australia have priority in maintaining balance in Indian ocean. USA and Japan have priority in the South China Sea and Pacific ocean. Hence escalating conflict in the south china sea may draw India into pacific ocean which is not its priority. In addition, USA and Japan’s operations in indian ocean will be limited considering their priorities. Hence Quad maritime grouping may not yield desired results in Indian ocean region(IOR).
- Chinese activities till now have been limited to surveillance and limited. There has been no contestation with Indian navy or stopping of merchant ships Hence threat perception is not too high to look for a balancing coalition. It is opined that if maritime QUAD comes into picture, an avoidable naval arms race will be kickstarted in Indian ocean.
Upgrading the trilateral Malabar to a quadrilateral, without acquiring the requisite combat and deterrence capability, could yield gains for India in the short term, but would prove ineffective in the long term. Instead India can provide intended signaling by including Australia as a non permanent partner for one year.
This does not mean Australia must not be invited as a permanent participant at any time. Right time will be when India gains requisite strategic and operational benefits or when Chinese threat perception will increase beyond limits. This will ensure flexibility and strategic autonomy.
- Should India include Australia in Malabar exercise? Critically analyze?[15 marks, 250 words]