[op-ed snap] Sop to China or signal to Australia?


Mains Paper 2: IR | Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: The Quad, Malabar exercise, etc.

Mains level: Possible effect on the Quad, after the recent decision of Indian Government of not allowing Australia to participate in the Malabar exercise.



  1. India’s refusal to let Australia participate in the upcoming Malabar naval exercise will hurt the Quad

Why this refusal?

  1. India, it seems, remains sceptical of Australia’s commitment as a strategic partner
  2. It was, after all, Australia that backed out of the Quad’s first incarnation in 2007

But it’s now high time that India updated its thinking about Australia

  1. A lot has changed since 2007
  2. In the years since, China began a much more aggressive campaign of coercion to assert dominance in its near seas, including with island-building in the South China Sea
  3. In response, Australia recalibrated its defence policies
  4. In successive policy statements, Australian governments from both major parties named China as the primary strategic challenge, drawing China’s ire each time
  5. They spoke out against Chinese provocations when few others did, including against China’s 2013 declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone, and in support of the 2016 arbitration ruling in favour of the Philippines
  6. The Australian military continues to conduct air and sea patrols of the South China Sea, which is frequently met with robust Chinese responses
  7. And it has deepened its US alliance, with the basing of Marines in Darwin

Was the denial of Australian participation in Malabar another Indian accommodation of China?

  1. The timing of the rejection suggests that Modi may have been signaling a pre-emptive sweetener for his China “reset”
  2. China’s strategic policy is to prevent regional states coordinating against it — so India slow-rolling such an alignment suits China’s interests perfectly
  3. And while the Indian military routinely exercises bilaterally with the US, Japan, and Australia, it stopped short of joining them all in a high-profile grouping which would upset China
  4. Even if India did not intend this as a concession to China, that may be the perception that gains traction around the region
  5. And, of course, perceptions have real effects

Possible effect on QUAD

  1. The denial of Australian participation in Malabar will harm the Quad
  2. At a minimum, the denial is a missed opportunity to build momentum for the Quad
  3. Worse, it may undermine the Quad’s credibility and reinforce widespread scepticism that it will ever amount to anything
  4. India’s opposition to Australia even observing this naval exercise in effect amounts to opposition to the Quad conducting any military activities, at least for now

The way forward

  1. Until India updates its views on Australia, it will further delay the efforts of like-minded powers to build a bulwark against Chinese coercion across the region
Foreign Policy Watch: India-China
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