On July 10, a number of news agencies reported that India’s leadership is considering inviting Australia to participate in the international naval exercise Malabar, scheduled later this year. The report is noteworthy for a number of reasons, mainly from the perspective of assessing the state of affairs in the Indo-Pacific region. The changes that have taken place in this region are directly linked to the history of the Malabar exercises.
This was the name given to the first joint Indian-US Navy exercise to be conducted in decades, which took place in the Gulf of Bengal in 1992. This was a notable sign of the burgeoning transformation of the entire geopolitical map after the end Cold War. India, for one, was in a state of strategic solitude (because of the disappearance of its former ally, the USSR) in the face of the same foreign policy challenges from China and Pakistan.
Naturally, India’s leadership began to seek a new external “balancing force,” and Washington was willing to fill this role. The very fact that the Malabar 1992 exercise had taken place marked the start of a US-India rapprochement—something that had seemed unbelievable just a few years before. This process has been neither smooth nor easy and continues to this day.
The first sticking point on this path was India testing its own nuclear weapons in 1998. The termination of the Malabar exercise was just one amongst other “sanctions” against Delhi.
However, compared to the Cold War, Washington stayed displeased with India for quite a long time. The prospect of a new geopolitical opponent in the face of China, which was already obvious then, forced Washington to turn a blind eye to Delhi’s recent “nuclear debacles” and to resume developing relations with India. Since then, India itself sees the US as the potential balancing force for the rapidly developing China.
The starting point of the process was President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000. A year later, Washington made it clear that it was willing to recognize India as a de facto nuclear power and generally cooperate in the field of peaceful nuclear energy. This led to the US-India nuclear deal, signed in 2006 by President George W. Bush. In 2002, the annual Malabar exercise was resumed.
At the same time the idea of forming an “Asian NATO” (evidently based on anti-Chinese sentiments) was put on the table in Washington’s political circles. The core of the new NATO was to consist of the US, India, Japan and Australia. In 2007, at the ASEAN Regional Forum, US Defense Secretary R. Gates formulated a concept to create a so-called Quad comprising the above-mentioned countries.
The evidence of the potential participants of the proposed project taking this seriously was the participation of Japan and Australia (joined by Singapore) in the Malabar exercise held that year.
This was, however, the first and, for many years to come, the last of these exercises to be conducted in a quadrilateral format. However, the very idea of the Quad seemed to have been forgotten. Among other reasons, we note the internal unrest that struck Japan at that time, as well as a sharp change in the domestic political situation in Australia.
As for Japan, with the early (and rather scandalous) end of Shinzo Abe’s first term as prime minister in 2007, the country entered a period of annual changes of government. At such times, it is difficult to conduct any significant foreign policy actions. Japan’s partners (including the US) also had doubts about doing serious business with a country whose leaders were replacing each other so quickly.
The domestic political situation in Japan only stabilized after Abe’s triumphant return to the Prime Minister’s seat at the end of 2012. This dramatically boosted the country’s foreign policy activity. In the summer of 2014, the Japanese Navy took part in another Malabar exercise after a seven-year hiatus. For the first time, it was held not in the Bay of Bengal, but on the eastern coast of Japan.
Since then, the exercise has adopted a trilateral format, and Japanese ships head to the Indian Ocean to participate in it. However, this wasn’t the only occasion for the Japanese Navy to frequent the Indian Ocean.
Australia paused its participation in the Malabar exercise due to a bloc of left-centrist parties coming to power in 2007. Their foreign policy (along with certain ideological considerations) considered economic wellbeing its main priority. China had already begun to occupy the position of Australia’s leading trade and economic partner, and it seemed absolutely unnecessary for the latter to spoil relations with it because of some “solidarity with the democratic countries of the region.”
Its foreign policy preferences underwent dramatic changes again in 2013 with the return of the bloc of center-right parties, who then won again twice (in 2016 and 2019) in the parliamentary elections. For the center-right government, the aforementioned factor of solidarity, which Canberra still tires to demonstrate on various occasions, was quite significant. One of the examples of this solidarity, recently discussed in the New Eastern Outlook, was the question of the “culprit” of the SARS COV-2 pandemic, as well as Australia joining a Western propaganda campaign connected to events in Hong Kong.
From the moment it came to power, the center-right government renewed its interest in the Malabar exercise and repeatedly asked the Indian leadership to allow Australia’s participation. The latest such request took place in late April 2018. For quite understandable reasons, Delhi refused every time.
A positive answer would obviously indicate the Indian leadership’s departure from the strategy of keeping the country in a neutral position (which over time grows more and more relative) in the aggravating confrontation between the two leading world powers.
Despite all the difficulties in China-India relations, the leaders of both countries, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, have made efforts to keep their development in a positive and constructive direction in recent years. Two informal meetings between them were of particular importance in this regard. The first took place in Wuhan at the end of April 2018, and the second in the Indian resort town of Mamallapuram a year and a half later.
Something negative had to happen recently between China and India in order for the latter to start considering the possibility of Australia joining the Malabar exercise in Delhi, which is tied to the prospect of forming an anti-Chinese Quad. And there is no doubt about what this “something” was. It is connected with another escalation of the situation on one of the China-India (quasi) borders in the highlands of Ladakh. This happened on the night of June 16 and resulted in the largest collision between the border patrol units of both countries over the past 40 years.
There was another noteworthy event taking place between early May and June 16, namely the Australian-Indian virtual summit, attended by Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Narendra Modi. The parties focused on cooperation defense and security in general.
Perhaps the June 16 incident in Ladakh was intended to serve as a warning to India in response to the outcome of this summit. This summit, in turn, could also be seen as a response to the aggravation of the situation in Ladakh that began back in May. Thus, a possible invitation extended to Australia to join the upcoming Malabar exercise could well be an answer to the “response” of June 16.
This raises the question of how far the spiral of mutual “responses” can reach. The fact that this question has been raised at all leads to some upsetting conclusions.
Hopefully, however, the “spirit of Wuhan” has not yet been completely eroded from the relationship between the two Asian powers, and even with the (possible) quadrilateral Malabar exercise, the idea of building an “Asian NATO” with India’s participation won’t develop further.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.