Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Concerns over Australia in the Malabar Exercise


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Quad

Mains level : Paper 2- Australia's joining in Malabar naval exercise and issues with it

While the idea of inviting Australia to join Malabar is being explored, we must not forget the concerns with it. This article examines such concerns.


  • India’s Ministry of Defence discussed the issue of adding Australia to the trilateral Malabar naval exercise.
  • If materialised, it will be the first time since 2007 that all members of Quad-India, U.S., Japan and Australia will participate in a joint military drill.

Possible consequences of the move

  • The Chinese leadership sees the maritime Quadrilateral as an Asian-NATO that seeks only to contain China’s rise.
  •  India’s intention to involve Australia in the Malabar drill could only be construed as a move directed against Beijing.

India’s perspective

  • Following the stand-off in Ladakh, many Indian analysts believe the time is right for India to shed its traditional defensiveness in the maritime domain.
  • The realists advocate an alliance with the U.S., Japan and Australia to counter Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean.


1) Contrary message to China

  • While India and China are negotiating a truce, Australia’s participation in the Malabar exercise sends contrary signals to Beijing.
  • If China responded aggressively in the Eastern Indian Ocean, it could needlessly open up a new front in the India-China conflict.

2) Only modest gains for India

  • U.S. and its Pacific partners want to form a maritime coalition to implement a ‘rules-based order’ in the Indo-Pacific littorals.
  • India’s priority is to acquire strategic capabilities to counter a Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
  •  Indian Navy is yet to develop the undersea capability to deter Chinese submarines in the eastern Indian Ocean.
  • With U.S. defence companies hesitant to share proprietary technology the gains for India, in exchange for signing up the ‘military-quad’, are modest.
  • Without strategic technology transfers, Indian Navy’s deterrence potential in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) will not improve much.

3) Operational issue: India will be drawn into power dynamics of the Asia-Pacific

  • With the strategic contest between the U.S. and China, there is every possibility that the military-Quad will be used to draw India into the security dynamics of the Asia-Pacific.
  • The U.S. would expect its Indo-Pacific partners, including India, to assist the U.S. Navy in its South China Sea endeavour.
  •  The U.S. and Japanese navies have little spare capacity for sustained surveillance and deterrence operations in the IOR.
  • Australia is an exception and is ready and able to partner India in securing the Eastern Indian Ocean.

4) Timing

  • A balancing coalition must come together at a time when the nature and magnitude of the threat are wholly manifest.
  • But, despite a growing presence in the Indian Ocean, the Chines Navy is yet to physically threaten Indian interests at sea.
  • So, the onus of the first move to precipitate a crisis in the Eastern Indian Ocean lies with the Indian Navy.


Upgrading the trilateral Malabar to a quadrilateral, without acquiring the requisite combat and deterrence capability, could yield gains for India in the short term, but would prove ineffective in the long run.

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