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Australia had joined the Malabar naval exercises in 2007.
Australia had joined the Malabar naval exercises in 2007.

With eye on China, India invites Australia for military exercises

New Delhi’s invitation will pave the way for the eventual formalization of the four-nation Quad grouping

India on Monday said it has invited Australia to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan in November. The move signals that New Delhi has shed its hesitation over how Beijing will perceive the development.

The timing of the invitation will not be lost on China, as it comes amid the military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. China is likely to consider it as a provocative gesture, as it sees the coming together of India, Japan, the US, and Australia, also known as the “Quad", as an effort to limit its influence, said analysts.

Last week, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had dismissed the grouping as part of Washington’s effort to build an “Indo-Pacific NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)" and warned that the initiative would severely undermine regional security.

New Delhi’s invitation to Australia is also expected to pave the way for the eventual formalization of the Quad grouping, something the US has been seeking for long.

“The Malabar series of naval exercises started in 1992 as a bilateral Indian Navy-US Navy exercise. Japan joined the naval exercise in 2015," India’s defence ministry said. “As India seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy," it said.

“The exercise will strengthen the coordination between the navies of the participating countries," it added.

“High-end military exercises such as Malabar are key to enhancing Australia’s maritime capabilities, building interoperability with our close partners, and demonstrating our collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Exercise Malabar also showcases the deep trust between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests," Australian defence minister Linda Reynolds said.

The announcement was “another important step in Australia’s deepening relationship with India", said Australian foreign minister Marise Payne, who had joined her Indian, Japanese and US counterparts for the meeting of Quad foreign ministers in Tokyo on 6 October.

“This (Australia’s inclusion) was in the offing but the delay in finalizing it was I think because India thought that it best to avoid complicating talks with China on border tensions. The announcement also conveys that India thinks the talks may not be as productive as anticipated," former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said.

Australia had joined the Malabar exercises in 2007, but with Beijing lodging a formal protest and changes in governments in some of the participating countries, the concept of the Quad and the joint manoeuvre were put on hold. The Quad was revived in November 2017 with officials of the four countries meeting in the Philippines.

However, India was seen as reluctant to include Australia in the naval exercises with analysts pointing to efforts by India to reset ties with Beijing after a military standoff in 2017. India has upgraded ties with Australia to a comprehensive and strategic partnership and they had concluded a mutual logistics support pact in June to allow access to each others’ military bases and ports. As such, the stage seemed set for Australia to join the exercises.

Abhijit Singh, analyst with the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, termed the addition of Australia as a “move in the right direction". It sent the signal that India is “willing to step up to its commitments" in the Indo-Pacific region, he said. China, however, was likely to read this as a signal of upping the ante, he warned.

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