Australia will mark its return to the Malabar exercise after its last participation in 2007 which drew criticism from China.

By Anil Wadhwa

The Indian defence ministry has formally invited the Australian Navy to take part in the Malabar Naval Exercise 2020 at the end of November this year along with the traditional participants – USA and Japan, in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Australia has been keen to participate in the Malabar naval exercise for the last few years and Japan and USA have been supportive of its inclusion.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s exercise will take place in a “no contact “format. The Malabar exercise started in 1992 with the USA and came to include Japan as a permanent member in 2015. Australia will mark its return to the Malabar exercise after its last participation in 2007 which drew criticism from China.

Given the fact that India and China are engaged in a military standoff at the line of Actual Control (LAC), that the Quad foreign ministers have just met in Tokyo, and that China’s relationship and actions are under strain with the USA and Australia, the move will be seen by many as a signal. Significantly, the statement from the Indian Ministry of Defence mentioned that the participating countries “collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules-based international order”.

Chinese sensitivity, reservations of some ASEAN countries that a ‘militarised’ Quad could be seen as anti-China, which will diminish the importance of ASEAN centrality, have all been advanced as possible reasons why Australia did not take part in the exercise in the past. However, the inclusion of Australia in the exercise this year was a logical conclusion, after India and Australia signed the Mutual Logistic Support Agreement during the virtual Summit between PM Narendra Modi and PM Scott Morrison in early June 2020 allowing them to use each others’ naval facilities, thus paving the way for enhancing defence exchanges and exercises in the Indo Pacific. India already has similar agreements with the USA and Japan.

Maritime domain awareness and interoperability at sea has been an important area of cooperation between India, USA, Japan, and Australia and has been expanding steadily over the past few years. Even though Australia has not been a part of the Malabar exercise, India and Australia have regularly undertaken bilateral and trilateral exercises in which their navies have been involved. The logic of non-inclusion of Australia in the past in the Malabar exercise due to Chinese sensitivities does not hold any longer due to the changed geopolitical circumstances, aggressive Chinese actions in the South China Sea, and the logistical support and interoperability agreements at sea which have been signed between all the four participating countries.

(The author is a former Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs, and has served as the Indian Ambassador to Italy, Thailand, Oman and Poland. Views expressed are personal.)

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