Home / News / India /  With eye on China, India sends an invite to Australia for Malabar naval exercise

India Monday said it had invited Australia for the annual Malabar naval exercises next month with the US and Japan a move that signals that New Delhi has shed its hesitation over how China will perceive the development.

The timing of the invite will not be lost on Beijing – it comes as India and China are engaged in a tense military standoff along their common border in Ladakh. Analysts say Beijing is likely view this as a provocative gesture given that China sees the coming together of India, Japan, the US and Australia – also known as the “Quad" -- as an effort to limit its influence. 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)," but warned nevertheless 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.

“The Malabar series of Naval exercises started in 1992 as a bilateral Indian Navy-US Navy exercise. Japan joined the Naval exercise in 2015," an Indian Defence Ministry statement 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 said. “The participants of Exercise Malabar 2020 are engaging to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain. They collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules based international order," it added.

“High-end military exercises like 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," Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said in a statement in Canberra. “Exercise Malabar also showcases the deep trust between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests," she added.

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

“It will bolster the ability of India, Australia, Japan and the United States to work together to uphold peace and stability across our region," she said.

The last time Australia joined the Malabar exercises was 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 manouvres were put on hold. The “Quad" was revived in November 2017 with officials of the four countries meeting in the Phillipines. But New Delhi was seen as reluctant to include Australia in the naval exercises with analysts pointing to efforts by New Delhi to reset ties with Beijing after a military standoff in 2017.

With India upgrading ties with Australia to a Comprehensive and Strategic Partnership and the two countries concluding a mutual logistics support pact to allow access to each others’ military bases and ports in June, the stage seemed set for Australia to join the exercises. This also coincided with an increase in Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region as well as the India-China border.

“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," former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said. “The announcement also conveys that India thinks the talks may not be as productive as anticipated," he said.

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 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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