India ups ante against China, invites Australia to join Malabar drill

Indian Navy in Malabar Drill

NEW DELHI: Upping the ante against China amid the ongoing military confrontation in eastern Ladakh, India has finally invited Australia to take part in its top-notch trilateral Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan next month.

The 24th edition of Malabar, to be held in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea in two phases in the first and third weeks of November, will mark the first time the “Quad” countries will come together for the combat manoeuvres on the high seas after a gap of 13 years.

The four-nation war-games will clearly signal their intent against China’s expansionist behaviour in the entire Indo-Pacific region. China has repeatedly expressed strong opposition to any expansion of the Malabar exercise, which it sees as a multilateral naval construct designed to “counter and contain” it.

India, too, was reluctant about any move towards militarising the Quad to avoid antagonising a prickly China over the years. “But Beijing’s aggressive and intransigent behaviour along the Line of Actual Control this year has finally tipped the balance. The message is clear,” said an official.

TOI was the first to report in January this year that India was considering inviting Australia to take part in the Malabar exercise, which included Japan as a regular participant from 2015 onwards.

But the final decision was kept on hold after the military confrontation with China erupted in eastern Ladakh in early-May. With no breakthrough yet in defusing the troop confrontation in the high-altitude region, India has now taken a hard-nosed decision to leverage cooperation with other major countries equally upset with China’s belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region.

This was evident in the defence ministry’s official statement on Monday to announce Australia’s inclusion in the exercise, which had started as a bilateral one between India and the US in 1992. “The four participants of Malabar Exercise-2020 are engaging to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain. They collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules-based international order,” it said.

Australia, too, was quick to accept the invite. Malabar will showcase “the deep trust between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests” as well as demonstrate “our collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific”, said defence minister Linda Reynolds.

Foreign minister Marise Payne, in turn, said the Malabar announcement was another important step in Australia’s “deepening relationship” with India. “This builds on the comprehensive strategic partnership, to which PMs Morrison and Modi agreed on June 4, 2020,” she said.

“It will bolster the ability of India, Australia, Japan and the US to work together to uphold peace and stability across our region,” she added.

Though Australia holds regular bilateral exercises with India, it had last participated in the Malabar in the Bay of Bengal in 2007, which had included Japan and Singapore as well.

After China’s strong objection, India had restricted Malabar to a bilateral exercise with the US for several years. Japan was included only when the exercise was held in the north-western Pacific in 2009 and 2014 before it was made a regular participant from 2015 onwards. Now, with India also inking reciprocal military logistics pacts with the US, Australia and Japan since 2016, the gloves are off.