By Colonel Awadhesh Kumar, Special Forces Veteran
India’s Look East Policy saw a Maritime push into South of China Sea and also the Pacific. In line with this policy the first ever India-Australia joint naval drills including anti-submarine warfare were held in the Bay of Bengal in September 2015. The second bilateral naval drills called Exercise AUSINDEX, planned quite some time back is scheduled shortly. Thus the Indian rejection of Australian request to participate in Malabar Series of Exercises has come as a surprise not only to the Australians but to some of their friends too. Some Strategic Analysts, who always judge events through the prism of Western Powers, have stated that keeping Australia at an arm’s length will prove a dampener to Delhi’s long-term Indo-Pacific strategy. As per them, India could have easily expanded the scope of Malabar Series by means of this multilateral initiative.
Many Experts think that by choosing to decline Australia’s request of participating as an official observer in the trilateral Malabar Exercise to be undertaken by India, Japan, and the United States next month, New Delhi has given a near walkover to China in the strategic arena. Australia is known to have taken up discussions for participation of the Australian Navy in Exercise Malabar with India since 2015. While in Tokyo in April this year, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne publicly acknowledged Canberra’s desire to join the naval games by stating that Australia was very interested in a quadrilateral engagement with India, Japan and the United States.
However the rest of World has to know that this Rejection by India has taken place because till now everyone had been taking India for granted. Time has finally come for all to start analysing things from Indian Viewpoint. By rejecting Australian request India has firstly given a clear signal that Australia has to first prove its reliability in such matters. In 2007-08, Australia, under pressure from China, had simply walked out of a similar type of Multilateral Initiative. The ominous shadow of China has been looming large on the Australia since 2007, when Australia’s then government led by Kevin Rudd took a call of withdrawing from the QUAD exercises and accompanying security talks, following negative instructions received from Beijing. Today, a decade later, the situation is no different. The near economic dependence of Australia on China has simply made India to turn down Australia’s request of joining the Malabar trilateral. Australia has to first give a firm assurance that in future it will not walk out of Malabar under pressure from China or any other country. Australia needs to behave like an Asian/Oceanian Country and not consider itself as part of main land China, North America or South America.
Secondly, Australians have to relearn the finer points of Diplomacy. In April Turnbull visited India along with his Education Minister and a big delegation. Right after the conclusion of the visit, Australia announced a new Visa Regulation which was perceived as quite unfriendly in India. It also coincided with Visa restrictions announced by Trump and the American Poodle Britain. Then the NSW state govt in Brisbane indicated its reluctance over the Adani Groups Mining Issues. Even the supply of Uranium has not taken off. So naturally India needed to show its displeasure and this was a perfect opportunity to give an International Snub. In a way it was also a snub to the USA because USA always likes to be seen as the guarantor of Security to Australia.
During the October 2015 Indo-Japan-US Malabar trilateral, China instead of throwing tantrums like before on the issue of Japanese participation reacted in a measured manner. Instead of
Officially protesting against this trilateral naval exercise, Beijing simply issued an official press briefing, “Countries around the world have all kinds of activities and cooperation…you are worrying too much when you ask whether the joint naval drill is aimed at China…”
So when so called Experts say that Beijing, in a gradual, yet consistent manner continues to engulf India—both in its land and maritime borders is a mere hogwash. The Belt and Road Initiative has not proved to be even a solid economic initiative. India took on the challenge and refused to attend the summit, there by exposing and removing whatever strategic undercurrent existed in this initiative. India is not at all worried by Chinese expanding presence into India’s Ocean. In fact India is looking towards this integration of China with the Indian Ocean at large, through overland and maritime corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative, as it will become the jugular vein of Chinese Economy. Such a jugular vein when slashed leads to ……bleeding to death.
India will make prudent choices, whilst pursuing a sovereign foreign policy and undertake decisions that best suit its national security interests. Given its 7,500 km coastline, 1,200 islands and 2.4 million sq km Exclusive Economic Zone, India’s reorientation and demonstration of being the key security Player for the entire region from Madagascar to Malacca and beyond into Pacific got cemented with establishing the country’s first Tri-Service Andaman and Nicobar Command.
Australia too should join hands with India and develop its Indian Ocean territories — the Cocos (Keeling) and Christmas Islands and invite India Navy’s presence thus highlighting the mutual maritime interests and stakes that India and Australia share in the larger Indo-Pacific. Placing India and Japan’s centrality shall define Australian strategic thinking, as it foresees the emerging strategic scenario developing in the Indo-Pacific. Given India’s economic footprint and the charter of its maritime interests, the notion of the greater Indo-Pacific has begun to eclipse the present sphere of influence of within the Indian Ocean only.
Canberra must start looking towards New Delhi and should commence capitalising on the positive momentum of their strategic and defence relationship, deepening engagement and increasing consistency of activities. For this to fructify Australia must be serious about consolidating its special relationships with India. For this it will have to find greater prominence, both at the bilateral and multilateral levels, in Delhi’s regional security quest. The decision of adding Australia to the India-Japan-US Malabar trilateral will then be affirmatively be taken by India at the next available opportunity.