Malabar: Australian message to China


After a gap of 13 years, Australian forces joined their counterparts from the

United States, Japan and India (not 2020) an annual naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in a move widely seen as sending a message to China, the South China Morning Post reports.

The three-day Malabar exercise off India’s southernmost coast comes amid increasing strain in the relationships between each of the four countries and China, and has been interpreted by many experts as a demonstration of resolve in the face of Beijing’s increasingly muscular foreign policy.

Indian troops have been locked in a stand-off with their Chinese counterparts along the two countries’ disputed Himalayan border for the past six months, while in recent days China has announced bans on a string of Australian imports, from barley to lobster, in what is widely seen as retribution for Canberra joining US calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

Against this background – along with a

US-China relationship

that has been rocked by both a

trade war

and a blame game over the coronavirus – the resurrection of Malabar as an exercise involving all four members of the so-called “Quad” is likely to raise hackles in Beijing.

The Malabar exercise began as a joint India-US exercise in 1992 before expanding to include all four countries. However, Australia and Japan pulled out after the 2007 exercise following a diplomatic protest by Beijing, which had accused the grouping of being an “anti-China coalition”. Japan rejoined in 2015.

With each of the four countries experiencing a steep deterioration in their diplomatic ties with China, the grouping has been revived.

Last month, the foreign ministers of all four nations met in Tokyo to discuss boosting their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Two weeks later, India announced the Australian military would once again be taking part in Malabar, indicating the countries had put aside their reservations about being seen to “contain” China, according to analysts.

“We have all waited for this to happen for a long time. There was a lot of hesitation between 2007 and now, especially because China saw this as a ganging up of democracies against itself,” said RS Vasan, a retired Indian navy commodore who is now the director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies think tank.

“In some ways, the Quad is coming together thanks to China – its actions have pushed India and Australia from being fence-sitters to willing partners,” said Vasan.

Taking part in the first phase of the exercises are the US guided-missile destroyer the USS John S McCain, the Royal Australian Navy’s long-range frigate Ballarat and a destroyer from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, Onami.

Host India will be sending the destroyer Ranvijay, frigate ship Shivalik, offshore patrol vessel Sukanya, fleet support ship Shakti and submarine Sindhuraj. It is also sending aerial units such as the Advanced Trainer Hawk, P-81 long-range maritime patrol aircraft, Dornier maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters. The second phase will be held later this month.

Malabar begins just as Beijing is prepares to add wheat to a list of

banned Australian imports

. Beijing has already announced plans to ban imports of barley, sugar, red wine, timber, coal, lobster, copper ore and copper from Australia. The move is part of an escalation in tensions that started when Canberra pushed for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus in April, without consulting Beijing.

Vasan said the Malabar exercises might provide a welcome boost to ties between India and an Australia that is now in need of new trade partners.

“I think we will see greater cooperation and a new momentum between the two – Australia wants to diversify its markets and shape new equations with countries,” Vasan said. “After all, the enemy’s enemy is a friend.”

In June, Indian Prime Minister

Narendra Modi

held a virtual bilateral summit with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in which the two countries elevated their relationship to the level of a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with Modi calling it the “perfect time” to strengthen ties between the two countries, pointing to the “endless opportunities”.

Earlier this year, news reports had indicated that India would step in to import barley from Australia after Beijing imposed a 80.5 per cent tariff on imports of the grain. Beijing is one of the biggest markets for Australian imports – the barley trade alone accounted for more than US$1 billion in 2018.

Yogesh Joshi, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore, said the Malabar exercises might be India’s way of asserting itself against China amid the deadly stand-off in the Himalayas.

India officials said this week that following the clashes the country had

lost control

of about 300 square kilometres of land along the disputed mountainous terrain with Chinese soldiers preventing Indian patrols in an area about five times the size of Manhattan.

“The Quad sends a signal to China that India will not take coercion lying down and will initiate external and internal balancing strategies to meet the challenge of Chinese power,” said Joshi.

Such posturing is in stark contrast to India’s position on the Quad in the past – after the 2007 Malabar Exercises, India was forced to assuage Chinese concerns by insisting that the grouping had no “security implications”.

Joshi said that the stand-off in the Himalayas and the escalation of tensions meant “costly signals” from Delhi – such as inviting Australian forces to Malabar – were required. “I don’t see how this will further aggravate the tensions; the relations are quite strained,” he added.

However, Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi said the exercise was so far largely symbolic.

“Each of the members have their specific goals, but they have yet to come out with a joint communique. They need to first figure out their goal,” he said.




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