Does the exclusion of Australia from the Malabar series of multi-lateral exercises serve any discernible purposes of statecraft? Here is some background. Since 1992, the US and India have had nearly- regular annual maritime exercises under the Malabar series. While initially these were held off the Malabar coast, subsequent editions have been convened elsewhere in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and in the Western Pacific as well. Interestingly, in April 2007, Malabar had been conducted in the Western Pacific for the first time and Japan joined in too. In September 2007 the scope was enlarged with the inclusion of Japan, Australia and Singapore. This pentagonal event, Ex- Malabar 2007-2, was held in the southern Bay of Bengal.
China took up cudgels in several ways to point out its concerns on this “anti-China” formulation. Its pressure seemed to have worked on Canberra and Australian keenness to participate declined. On its part, Delhi too became very sensitive to drawing China’s ire. It may be recalled that China voiced its unhappiness about several issues including waiving visas for residents of Arunachal since it was part of “South Tibet”; against the Dalai Lama; any important visits by central leaders to Arunachal; denial of visas for some military officers and so on. In the event, Malabar continued in the bilateral mode when held in waters close to India and with Japanese participation when in the Pacific.
Realising the benefits in terms of statecraft, regular Japanese participation in the series was confirmed in 2015. It was felt that sending clearer signals to China on strategic consonance, mutuality of concerns regarding Beijing’s actions in the South and East China Seas and the need to build and maintain interoperability among forces had become necessary. However, there was still some reluctance to invite Australia back in even when it was signalling that it wanted to.
The rationale for a quartet and perhaps a few more naval ensigns in future Malabars has never been stronger. Firstly, appeasing China has been counter-productive and appeasement always is. China almost never let’s go any real or perceived remark, action or diplomatic move against its changing goal-posts and expanding interests without a strong response. Secondly, its own proclivity to provoke, push and prod is seen all the time. While it expects acquiescence to its sensitivities from others, the US included, Chinese statecraft not only gives no quarter for such niceties, but it also widens the breach. Third, its own spread of deployments, exercises and military hardware relationships with an increasing number of nations in the “Indo-Afro-Pacific” should neither be ignored nor left bereft of counter-measures. Fourth, it seems more evident than ever before that it is China that is coherently proceeding along with an Indo-Pacific strategy while not acknowledging such a formulation. Moreover, this strategy is underpinned by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Fifth, no matter how tentative and light-footed the Quadrilateral dialogue, that includes Australia, is portrayed to be, it can have meaning only when it is ready to be a “squad” marching in robust steps that includes military- operational potential. China has often talked about this potential and for some Quad members to say that it is for economic consonance, HADR and other such benign goals not only cuts no ice with Beijing, but it also inhibits the strategic objectives of statecraft.
Further, within Australia, there has been a sea-change in its recognition of the potential security threats due to China’s inroads and influence within Australia. It has been only in the past few years that the political establishment, universities, media and most surprisingly, even businesses are admitting to the insidious danger. Earlier there were few takers for the concern that security agencies and the Department of Defence were voicing. Prosperity simply trumped security. That is now water under the bridge. Of course, China is an important customer for its commodities including LNG, coal, iron ore, uranium, agriculture, education business to name the primary sectors. In any case, China is an important country even for the other three “Malabari” nations. The US, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia or India (to name a few) understand quite well that trade; talks and negotiations can continue even when concerns are not camouflaged to invisibility. With this backdrop, the quartet do have shared concerns and reasons to come together to contribute to a degree of deterrence.
Since Malabar is a primarily maritime exercise, it brings together four very competent navies and other instruments based on land that would benefit from greater and regular inter-operability. India and Australia have a growing defence and security relationship; Australia and Japan do as well. Individually, they are both treaty partners of the US. Japan has developed competencies in East Asia and the Western Pacific littoral; India in the IOR; Australia in the two- ocean littoral that it straddles as well as in the expanse of the South Pacific. The US as a global power with a global military footprint is a player throughout the Indo-Pacific. Individually, however, each nation and its armed forces have some weaknesses in terms of what they can bring to bear to enhance deterrence through potential pressure on China. In cooperation, the quartet could matter. What’s more, it should not be beyond the realm of possibility to cooperate with more nations like Indonesia and some other ASEAN states that remain wary of China’s power and intent. But, as a start, Australia could be invited back for “is bar– hum char—Malabar!” (This is Hindi for “Us four in Malabar this time.”)