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India’s Pivot to Australia

  • Harsh V.
  • Aug, 2020
  • 141
  • Strategic Studies

With discussions underway for Canberra to join the Malabar naval exercises, New Delhi hopes to add a new backer in its fight against China

Will Australia join the Malabar exercises? For weeks, Indian media has reported with near certitude that New Delhi will be inviting Canberra to join its high-level naval exercises, which usually involve the navies of India, Japan, and the United States. While strategic dialogue and informal cooperation has long existed between the four countries, known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the exercises would mark the first time Australia would be part of this official joint military engagement. For India, the decision to extend the invitation-a move it had so far held back on despite interest from Australia - marks a major step. Not only does New Delhi hope to strengthen its relations with its partners in the Indo-Pacific, but it intends to send a strong message to Beijing as border tensions mount: India’s military partnerships are growing stronger than ever, and Chinese intransigence will make them even more potent.

India-Australia relations have evolved rapidly over the past five years, and this development is a natural corollary. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison held their first virtual bilateral meeting in June, the pair offered up a number of significant agreements. The signed accords included the Mutual Logistics Sharing Agreement, allowing the two nations to use each other’s military bases for logistics support improving military partnership. The two countries also agreed to elevate their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership, which is based on “mutual understanding, trust, common interests and the shared values of democracy and rule of law.” This is symbolic of their commitment to strengthen their engagement in the Indo-Pacific for the promotion of an “open, free, rules-based Indo-Pacific region supported by inclusive global and regional institutions,” as the two countries put it in a joint statement last month.

The timing of such accords couldn’t be better for two nations that have been at the receiving end of China’s aggressive actions. Tensions between Australia and China have been high since Canberra in April called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. China responded by reportedly drawing up a list of Australian exports that could be subject to tariffs and stricter controls. India, for its part, has been facing a tense standoff with China after border clashes last month resulted in the death of 20 Indian border troops and an unknown number from the Chinese side. Although the two sides are now in the process of disengaging after diplomatic and military talks, tensions over the long undemarcated border, the Line of Actual Control, mark perhaps the worst Sino-Indian crisis since the 1960s.

Amid this rising assertiveness by China, Canberra stands to gain a partnership it has long desired. For years, Australia has wanted to be party to the exercises, even agreeing to join in as an observer in 2017. But India, trying to tread cautiously vis-à-vis China, had not been enthusiastic. Now, its calculations have changed. The choice to join hands and develop a stronger stance against China with like-minded countries no longer seems radical. For Australia and India, stronger defense partnership is essential to achieving a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Faced with an increasingly powerful and aggressive China, countries such as Australia, Japan, the United States, and even members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are all rethinking and remapping their China policies-particularly with regards to its incursions in the South China Sea. ASEAN recently released a vision statement where it underlined the need for China to abide by international law and to finalize the China-ASEAN Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. The United States this month strongly condemned China’s actions in the South China Sea, calling its efforts “completely unlawful.” Australia recently announced its 2020 Defence Strategic Update-a wide ranging, 10-year defense plan of 270 billion Australian dollars ($189 billion).

Defense partnerships are central to any effort to counter China. Inviting Australia to the Malabar exercises would significantly strengthen the military quotient of the Quadrilateral grouping. If Australia is given the go-ahead to join the exercise, it will be first time since 2007 that all four Quad members participate in a joint military drill. The Quad went on hiatus from 2008 to 2017, and while has been operational since 2017, it only took off in a significant way after a meeting between the countries’ foreign ministers in September 2019. Prior to the 2019 meeting, summits ended with each country issuing its own statement outlining its own priorities-rather than a ...

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