India will take a call on Australia’s inclusion in Malabar exercises with Japan and the U.S at a meeting with the Defence Ministry early next week, as reported by a defence source. The decision could join all Quad countries as part of the annual war games.
“The consensus is that Australia should join. A discussion will happen in the Defence Ministry on this issue the coming week,” the defence source said choosing anonymity. The Malabar exercise has been delayed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is envisaged to take place towards the end of 2020, the source said.
Exercise Malabar is a trilateral naval exercise between the United States, Japan, and India as permanent partners. Formed in 1992, Exercise Malabar was a bilateral operation between the U.S. and India, with Japan joining as a permanent partner in 2015. Non-permanent participants in the past were Australia and Singapore. The annual Malabar series commenced in 1992 encompassing manifold activities, from fighter combat operations to aircraft carriers through Maritime Interdiction Operations Exercises.
Once the Indian Government decides to include Australia, the other partner nations — Japan and the U.S. — have to be informed and their consent secured, as per procedure under which a formal invitation would be extended to Australia. Japan and the U.S. have been optimistic about Canberra’s inclusion and have been pushing India to consider it. The inclusion of Australia in the Malabar exercises would mark a significant shift for India’s Indo-Pacific plans.
The move comes amid the ongoing stand-off with China on the border, the biggest crisis witnessed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in over five decades. Australia’s inclusion may be perceived as a preliminary step towards the militarisation of the Quad coalition. “India’s timing of potentially allowing Australia into Malabar would be significant at this juncture,” said Derek Grossman, a researcher at the Washington-based RAND Corporation who worked in the U.S. intelligence community for more than a decade.” “It would send a significant message to China that the Quad — U.S., Australia, Japan, and India — are de facto engaged in collaborative naval exercises, even though technically not conducted under the auspices of a Quad event.”
China has been uncomfortable with the informal coalition of four democracies and Beijing has opposed it in the past. First formed in 2004 and revived in 2017 the coalition aimed to help nations in the Indo-Pacific after the tsunami. Amidst the corona virus pandemic, the grouping has been coordinating efforts every month with Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand.
Concerning the amelioration of strategic cooperation with Australia, the source stated: “There are a considerable number of things we are doing with Australia.” Last month at a “virtual summit”, Prime Ministers of the two countries Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison signed the long-pending Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, elevating the union to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Additionally, a joint declaration on a shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo- Pacific was announced.
Mr Morrison, on 1st July, declared Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, terming it as a “significant pivot”, a $270 billion 10-year defence plan including, for the first time, land, sea, and air-based long-range hypersonic strike missiles for Australia.
Consensus on the Australian front
Since April 2017, Australia has been requesting to join the Malabar exercises and in January 2018, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbu stated: “Talks on the Malabar exercises were progressing well.” However, Australia was not included by India in the exercises in 2018 and 2019. “For the coalition to happen it needs to be perused how it would be different from the original bilateral exercise AUSINDEX in terms of scope and complexity, and also the political factors” propounded the Indian Government.”
“The issue of Malabar is an issue for the partners (India-U.S.-Japan) to decide; we would be delighted to participate in Malabar,” said the Australian High Commissioner Barry O’ Farrell. Mr O’Farrell further added, “bilateral defence cooperation had quadrupled in the last six years”.
Pronouncement of the MLSA would enable the signatory countries to use each other’s military bases for exchanging fuel and provisions to improve logistical support and operational turnaround. Australia became the first country to present a draft MLSA after India signed the first agreement with the US in 2016. The draft MLSA was scheduled to be signed last year during defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Canberra, cut short due to certain domestic commitments. Thereafter, it was contemplated the draft would be discussed in the Modi-Morrison Summit in January, which unfortunately got postponed first due to the Australian forest fire and the COVID-19 pandemic. The two leaders rather than putting it off any further as per official reports “decided to continue the engagements even though it was in the form of a virtual meeting.”
A broader maritime cooperation agreement with a focus on Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is envisioned and Australia has agreed to post a Liaison Officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) at Gurugram.”