India is prepared to expand the Malabar trilateral naval exercise involving India, the U.S. and Japan, to also include Australia, defence officials told The Hindu. While a decision on whether to extend the invitation is expected “soon”, the officials said, it was unlikely to be announced during Thursday’s “virtual summit” between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison.
Cooperation in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and the strengthening of defence ties would be at the top of the agenda for the talks, and India and Australia are expected to conclude the long pending Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) as part of measures to elevate the strategic partnership.
“We have a shared approach to a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” said a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This has led to a convergence of mutual interest in many areas,” the official said, stressing that as “two democratic nations”, the two countries had a better understanding of regional and global issues.
Despite regular requests from Australia in the last few years, India has resisted issuing the invitation to the Malabar exercise, ostensibly over concerns that it would give the appearance of a “quadrilateral military alliance” aimed at China. However, the recent India-China tensions over the situation at the Line of Actual Control may have brought more flexibility to the decision making process, and the Prime Minister’s Office and MEA are expected to take a final decision in consultation with the Ministry of Defence.
When asked about Malabar earlier this week, Australian High Commissioner Barry O’Farrell said he could not confirm whether India would decide to invite Australia.
“The issue of Malabar is obviously an issue for the partners (India-U.S.-Japan) to decide; we would be delighted to participate in Malabar, but I do think that at times the focus on Malabar gets in the way of the underappreciated growth and significance of defence ties between Australia and India,” Mr. O’Farrell said, adding that bilateral defence cooperation had “quadrupled in the last six years”.
The announcement of the MLSA, which would allow reciprocal use of each other’s military bases for exchange of fuel and provisions to simplify logistical support and improve operational turnaround would mark another step in that direction. Australia was the first country to submit a draft MLSA after India signed the first such agreement with the U.S. in 2016. It was to be signed last year during the scheduled visit of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to Canberra but the trip was cancelled due to his domestic engagements. It was then expected to be part of the announcements at the Modi-Morrison summit in January 2020, which had to be postponed due to Australian forest fires, and put off again in May because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than putting it off any further, the two leaders “decided to continue the engagement even though it was in the form of a virtual meeting,” officials said.
A broader maritime cooperation agreement with a focus on Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is also in the works and Australia has agreed to post a Liaison Officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre - Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) at Gurugram. The two countries also have increasingly common military platforms as India’s defence purchases from the U.S. continue to grow.
The inclusion of Australia in the Malabar exercise would be a major shift from the past for India’s Indo-Pacific plans. Malabar began as a bilateral naval exercise between India and the U.S. in 1992 and was expanded into a trilateral format with the inclusion of Japan in 2015. Since 2016, Australia has made repeated requests to join the exercises, and in January 2018, the then Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull had said the talks on Malabar were “progressing well”. However, India did not include Australia in the exercises in 2018 and 2019, continuing instead to grow the bilateral AUSINDEX naval and other military exercises.