New Delhi: India is looking to scale up its defence engagement with Australia from a bilateral to multilateral level in a calibrated manner by including it in naval exercises between India, US and Japan in the future, two people familiar with the development said on Wednesday.
This follows news reports that India has rejected a request from Australia to take part in the multilateral Malabar naval exercises that India participates in annually with the US and Japan, mindful of annoying China.
Two people familiar with the matter in New Delhi said India had “not closed the door" on Australia’s request to join the Malabar exercises.
“What India would like to do is to work first at the bilateral level to improve naval engagement and look at multilateral exercises involving Australia, India, US and Japan, at a later date," said one of the two people cited above, ruling out any Chinese pressure or influence on India’s decision. The person declined to be named.
“What India is saying is that this (including Australia in the Malabar exercises) is not being considered just now," said the second person cited above, who did not wish to be named.
The Malabar exercises began as India-US drills in 1992 but have included Japan since 2014.
A number of warships, submarines and aircraft take part in the wargames, which are aimed at getting the three navies used to working together. According to officials, this is expected to help in future operations, including joint patrols across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
According to a Reuters report and another in the Australian press, Australia formally wrote to the Indian defence ministry in January asking if it could send naval ships to join the naval exercises—scheduled to be held in July—as an observer. This was expected to pave the way towards eventual full scale participation.
But India in turn conveyed to Canberra that Australia could send officers to watch the wargames in the Bay of Bengal from the decks of the three participating countries’ warships, the Reuters report said.
It added that India’s reticence on the subject was due to its giant neighbour China. It said New Delhi was worried that China will step up activity in the Indian Ocean where it is building infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan as part of its giant infrastructure building exercise under the Belt and Road Initiative unveiled in 2013. There have been news reports of Chinese submarine presence in the Indian Ocean as well as submarines docking in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
However, a defence ministry official brushed off any suggestion of Chinese sway on India’s decision to limit its wargames with Australia to the bilateral level at present.
“Chinese views are not a factor in India’s decision as can be gauged from the ongoing strengthening and deepening of the trilateral Malabar exercises with the US and Japan," the defence ministry official said.
“Decisions on joint exercises are taken keeping several aspects such as shared naval interests and respective capabilities. India has established the AUSINDEX joint naval exercise with Australia, the next edition of which is being held in June 2017," said the official.
Previously, there was a proposal for India, US, Australia and Japan to hold quadrilateral exercises in 2007 when then Australian Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal Party was in power. But Australia pulled out of the wargames soon after Howard was defeated in the 2007 elections by Labour Party leader Kevin Rudd.
India-China ties have been rocky in recent times mainly over Chinese objections to India joining the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and Beijing blocking India’s attempts to get Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group’s chief Maulana Masood Azhar into an UN list of proscribed terrorists. The Asian giants share a mutually suspicious relationship thanks to China’s closeness to India’s arch rival Pakistan and an unsettled border dating back to 1962.