Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears in New Delhi with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on April 10, 2017.
Turnbull visited India from April 9 to April 12. Photo: AFP / Money Sharma
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears in New Delhi with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on April 10, 2017. Turnbull visited India from April 9 to April 12. Photo: AFP / Money Sharma

The shadow of China looms large in India’s decision to exclude Australia from an upcoming multilateral naval exercise. Canberra confirmed last Thursday that its navy would not be part of Malabar 2018, which will be held off Guam between June 7 and 15.

So this year’s Malabar drills will maintain a trilateral format, involving the naval forces of India, the United States and Japan. This means the project of a Quadrilateral (Quad) alliance/dialogue among New Delhi, Washington, Tokyo and Canberra to face Beijing’s military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region will likely be mothballed.

Backed by the US and Japan, Australia has tried to rejoin the Malabar exercises under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, leader of a Liberal-National coalition government, at least with observer status. The former Labor government of Kevin Rudd withdrew the country from the multilateral drills in 2008, supposedly in response to pressure from China. Rudd’s move eventually led to the demise of the first attempt to set up an anti-Beijing grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies spearheaded by the US.

Reassuring China

Many view the Indian government’s rejection of the Australian request to participate in the Malabar maneuvers as a concession to China, just like its recent decision to freeze relations with the Tibetan leadership in India. New Delhi is apparently trying to thaw the ice with Beijing after last year’s military standoff on the Doklam Plateau at the tri-junction border with Bhutan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei province, last Friday and Saturday. The pair agreed on improving military communication to prevent border incidents, and supporting a free and open global trading system.

Relations between Australia and China have worsened during the Turnbull tenure. The Australian prime minister has repeatedly accused Beijing of interfering in the country’s domestic affairs. To counter alleged Chinese meddling, Turnbull has advanced a controversial law to ban foreign political donations to Australian political parties and entities linked to them.

Additionally, Canberra is supporting Washington’s so-called freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the South China Sea, aimed at pushing back against Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in this body of water. In this respect, tension between Australia and China escalated a couple of weeks ago, when three Australian warships were confronted in the disputed area by China’s PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy while they were heading for Vietnam, media reports said.

As Swaran Singh, a professor at the school of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, put it to Asia Times, India’s distancing from Australia is likely to be explained as “a response to China’s concerns about the Quad having been revived after a decade and now is expanding its interactions to military dialogue and joint exercises.”

But there is another reason, according to Singh, which refers to the basics of India’s foreign policy. Indeed, he said the recent decision to block Australia’s participation in Malabar 2018 “also seems to be guided by India’s policy of ‘multi-alignment,’ which entails partnering with as many countries as possible without making one relationship hostage to any other.”

New Delhi goes bilateral/trilateral

All that said, and despite India having so far refused to conclude a logistics support agreement with Australia to use each other’s naval facilities (India has a similar cooperation arrangement with the US and France), a proposal that the Australian government put forward in 2015, New Delhi is not indifferent to security collaboration with Canberra altogether.

Military exchanges between Australia and India have been bolstered in the past two years. In June 2017, the two nations held the AUSINDEX naval drills off the Western Australian coast, with a focus on increasing interoperability between their navies. Further, the Indian Air Force will join Australia’s Pitch Black air exercises for the first time in August.

In a way, the Indian government appears to be backtracking on the Quad while keeping bilateral defense ties with Canberra, Tokyo and Washington alive. India is playing a delicate geopolitical game, in which it has to take China’s perceptions into account. And New Delhi’s vetoing of a quadrilateral framework for naval drills with the US, Japan and Australia should be read as a sign of its unwillingness to join a multilateral front that Beijing could perceive as hostile.

In light of its foreign-policy tradition, current Indo-Pacific security dynamics and, more specifically, the precarious state of Sino-Indian relations, bilateral or, at most, trilateral schemes aimed at balancing China’s geopolitical rise remains much more manageable for New Delhi than a Quad-style military alliance.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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