‘India does not need to restrain Quad exercises to keep China happy’

The last and the only time the Australian navy had participated in this exercise was in 2007. At that time, Malabar 2007 had provoked issuing of demarche to India by China due to the participation of Australia

New Delhi: Australia is almost certain to join the Malabar naval war exercise scheduled for later this year, with informed sources in both Canberra and New Delhi confirming that Australia will be made a permanent member of this naval exercise which right now has three members, India, the United States and Japan.

Malabar 2020 will be taking place in the waters of Bay of Bengal by the end of this year where China has been wanting to spread its domination.

The last and the only time the Australian Navy had participated in this exercise was in 2007. At the time, Malabar 2007 had provoked issuing of demarche to India by China due to participation of Australia. Following this, despite repeated communication by Australia to let it participate in the exercise, Indian government chose to take the route of conciliation rather than confrontation with China and politely refused Australia’s request.

“That was in the past,” a senior official with the Ministry of Defence said while recalling India’s reaction to China in 2007. “Malabar 2020 is going to happen in a very different time, literally and figuratively. In 2007, the political leadership was wooing China; 13 years later, the situation is vastly different. China has shown its hand (referring to the Galwan incident), now we are under no obligation to give priority to China’s wishes over our own strategic requirements,” he told The Sunday Guardian.

According to official sources, Indian policy-deciders are aware that China will make a lot of noise as Malabar 2020 comes close, but termed it as “expected” and “normal”, signifying the change in the mood in the North Block as far as taking care of China’s concerns was concerned.

China watchers, both inside India and outside, believe that inviting Australia to become a part of Malabar 2020 will be a “big” step.

BR Deepak, well-known expert on China and chairperson of the Institute of Chinese and South Asian Studies at JNU, told The Sunday Guardian that Australia should be made a part of Malabar 2020 in the capacity of a permanent member.

“Australia has participated in the exercises in 2007 as a non-permanent member unlike the US, Japan and India. However, the exclusion of Australia from the 2018 exercises owing to India’s overcautious approach about China’s sensitivities was uncalled for. India’s decision to invite Australia for these exercises implies that India has freed herself from the delusion of China as a non-enemy, and the disbelief that if India is sensitive towards China’s core interests, China will be sensitive towards India’s. Therefore, if at all, it is a ‘big decision’; Australia should be there in the capacity of a permanent member. The list of non-permanent members must be expanded to countries like South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines. India should not be under any delusion that the Quad or India’s close security cooperation with the US has not been incorporated into the Chinese strategic calculus; it has been for sure. Therefore, India must do whatever is required to safeguard and further her national interests,” he said.

Similarly, Dr Satoru Nagao, who is a Visiting Fellow at Hudson Institute and specializes in India’s military strategy and Japan-US-India security cooperation, said that if India invites Australia for Malabar 2020, which China sees as an exercise taken to contain China, it will send out a political message.

“In 2007, it was for the first time that Malabar exercises included all four countries (with Singapore). That time, China had reacted very strongly. As a result of China’s reaction, Quad countries—in view of China’s concern and to avoid provoking China—did many bilateral, trilateral exercises, but no Quad exercises. Quad, especially for India, has both benefits and risks. India faces a dilemma that differentiates its strategic concerns from those of the US, Japan and Australia: India is alone among the four countries that shares a land border with China. That puts India in a bind as it considers the prospect of military cooperation. Simply put, the more India cooperates with the US, Japan and Australia, the more it can improve its ability to counter China in the Indo-China border area. However, the more that the countries cooperate, the more it will have an undesirable effect on India: China will respond by deploying an increasingly greater number of forces to the Chinese side of the India-China border. However, despite India caring about China, China’s activities in the Indo-China border have escalated. Since 2011, the number of incursions have increased drastically—213 (2011), 426 (2012), 411 (2013), 460 (2014), 428 (2015), 296 (2016), 473 (2017), 404 (2018) and 663 (2019). This year, India lost 20 soldiers at Galwan. Therefore, India does not need to restrain Quad exercises to care about China. Inviting Australia to show the power of Quad is the right choice,” Nagao told The Sunday Guardian.

Commenting on whether the informal grouping of India, US, Japan and Australia, which is also called Quad, will assume more seriousness post Malabar 2020 on the lines of perhaps an Asian NATO, Deepak said that it would be too early to call it that, but the nations concerned must seriously deliberate into the nitty-gritty of it.

“India has to answer a simple question, which is: whether or not China has been pinning India to South Asia by its proxies or not? If China’s containment of India has assumed seriousness, then there should be no doubt about Quad or other alliances of India not assuming seriousness. The edifice of post 1988 India-China relationship was built on the premise that China will not pose a security threat to India, and that she will be sensitive towards India’s core interests. If that has not happened, why should India be performing an ostrich act? As far as Asian NATO, it is a little early, nevertheless, the nations concerned must deliberate into the nitty-gritty of it and conclude relevant agreements, besides the logistical support agreement. The invitation should not be a one-off measure to irritate China in the backdrop of the border tension, but should be a permanent feature of India’s strategic thinking that is long term and sustainable, so as our common interests in the free, open and prosperous India-Pacific region are advanced and protected. Obviously, if prosperity is one of the features, India needs to engage aggressively in the region economically, a single-minded security approach may not last long,” he added.

Dr Satoru Nagao, said that the Quad (once Australia becomes a part of it) will not just be a symbol, but will also have more practical value. “There is a possibility that the Quad will expand as Quad+; Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines etc and other European countries like the UK and France, too, will join the grouping. Quad can be the core of an ‘Asian NATO’,” Nagao said.

“However, at the same time, Asia or the Indo-Pacific is wider than Europe. There is too much diversity in the Indo-Pacific. To form an ‘Asian NATO’ is a very big job. The most important key in this is the US commitment, because of its military, economic and technological power. As of now, the US is focusing on its competition with China and hence will not withdraw from this region any time soon. But if there is any sign of US withdrawal, it will be nightmare for the other countries. I believe that the US commitment will be more stable and assured if an ‘Asian NATO’ is established,”, he added.

Commenting on how the Chinese were seeing Malabar 2020, Antara Ghosal Singh, who keeps a close eye on the developments in China’s strategic circles and is a Research Associate with the Delhi Policy Group, a think-tank, said, “After the Galwan incident, the Chinese strategic community somewhat expected a greater collaboration between India, US, Japan and Australia and the strengthening of the Indo-Pacific concept. The community members, while expressing concern over these countries getting closer, have argued that a new ‘axis’ force is on the rise, referring to the developments during World War II, with the key objective ‘of threatening regional peace and stability and containing China’s rise’. Despite the growing closeness, the Chinese side feels, there are still major contradictions between the four nations which can be leveraged by China in the future.”