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Why is it important to allow Australia to join the Malabar Exercise this year?; By Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

, dated May 6, 2017

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C3S Article no: 0041/2017

India-Australia relations are poised to embark on next levels of strategic partnership. The visit of the Australian Prime Minister Turn Bull from 09-12April 2017 gave ample indication that there are many areas of convergence for the two democracies in the coming decades. The joint statements issued full statement clearly bring out that there is a new thrust on synergizing the efforts notably  in the maritime domain.

The last point in the joint statement in the section covering “Partners in Indo Pacific” clearly appears aimed at China though no reference is made to either  China or the South China Sea. The statement is all about the China’s refusal to respect the legal order (Permanent Court of Arbitration award, (PCA) based on United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea(UNCLOS).

The reference to freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce and resolving of maritime disputes by peaceful means in accordance with the UNCLOS is obviously aimed at an aggressive China which has shown scant regard for the PCA award and is consolidating its  gains in the forms of illegal Islands on which military facilities including runways have been built. While China would have taken note of this increasing convergence on such issues between the two countries, the emphasis on ensuring maritime security and the safety of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) provides for greater opportunities to work together.  The agreed collaborative arrangements to prevent irregular migration, people smuggling and human trafficking will bring the stake holders on a common page and again will see cooperation amongst the maritime security agencies, Law Enforcement Agencies and others in the loop notably in the Indo-Pacific area.

The two countries have agreed to hold the next edition of the AUSINDEX in 2018 off western Australia.The last one was held in Bay of Bengal in 2015. The importance to join hands to promote maritime safety and security provides expanding the scope of cooperation. The significance of bilateral White ship agreement is relevant in the context  working together to promote the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in the Indian Ocean in areas of interest to both countries. It is of interest to note that India during the 20th anniversary of IORA, during a Leader’s summit in Jakarta on 07 March 2017details has offered to extend the facilities of a IORA  Fusion Centre and a center of excellence in one of the coastal cities in  India to promote MDA. Both the members of East Asia Summit have also been active in using the EAS plank to pusue issues of common interest.

One of theMemorandum of Understanding drawn up during Turn Bull’s visit  to India in early April 2017 to tackle terrorism, violent extremism resonates from the “Declaration on Preventing Violent Extremism and Countering Terrorism” that was adopted during the IORA conference in Jakarta early this year.  Both the countries are also keen to ensure that the agreements made regarding the supply of nuclear fuel are fast paced. Australia continues to be an important partner in India’s quest for both conventional and nuclear energy security.

It is important to discuss the issue of institutionalising a quadrilateral Malabar exercise with the admission of Australia which has similar challenges and is a willing partner to enhance the levels of cooperation and engagement by working through this plank which is well established between India, USA and now Japan.

If one were to go by the reports that appeared in the media (see link), it comes as a surprise that Australia may not be invited to join the Malabar Exercise this year despite the desire expressed by the Defence Minister of Australia in Tokyo . If this has anything to do with the apprehensions about how China would respond as reported it would appear that the old ghosts have come to haunt the policy makers  in India again after a decade of a similar situation. China hardly cares or worries about the sensitivities of other countries in general and India in particular while pursuing its agenda. In this backdrop if the reports about not honouring the request of Australia are true, then India has to take the full blame for not working on available options through Australia in the arena of great geostrategic and economic importance. Australia has publicly at the level of the Defence Minister has indicated how enthusiastic it is to part of Malabar despite some of the reservations expressed by China in the last quadrilateral edition. There is a view that Australia is also trying to balance its relations with China and therefore would also be looking at such options as offered by Malabar to increase its profile and protect its expanding maritime interests.

According to reports, even USA is keen to expand the scope of what was originally conceived as a bilateral exercise.  Admiral Scott Swift, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander has been quoted as saying that this would be done step by step based on the consensus of the partners. By all counts, India and even USA hardly need to be apologetic about the way it would like to manage its challenges in the maritime domain by useful association of the like-minded and also stand up to the aggressive posturing by China. It is time for the partners of Malabar to shed their inhibitions on engaging with other maritime powers and to create space that provides answers to some of the challenges faced in the maritime domain from Africa to Australia. The IORA meeting in March 2017 in Indonesia attended by the Vice President of India and the follow up meeting between the two Prime Ministers in New Delhi in April provide ample justifications for the two maritime nations to enhance the range of joint exercises and collaborative efforts to promote security architecture and stability in the global commons of great importance to all stake holders. The logical step now is to ensure that the core objectives of IORA leader’s summit and the Prime Minister’s meeting are met by adding Australia to Malabar exercise.

The Malabar that started in 1992 in elementary format has grown over the years and has achieved a certain degree of critical mass. Though it was suspended in 1998 post the Pokhran nuclear statement by India, it has become an important element of convergence of India and US strategic partnership. The addition of Japan last year hasprovided tri lateral options in the Pacific for promoting maritime security and stability. India has legitimate trade, commerce and strategic interests in the East Asian countries in the Pacific and these interests would be well served by associations of the likeminded.  It would be the silver jubilee year  of commencement of Malabar and a decade since a major Malabar exercise was conducted in the Bay of Bengal in which Australia was also involved in 2007.  China was upset with this ‘ganging up of the democratic forces’ which it felt was against its interests. It is surprising at all that the countries including India were subdued in the face of an aggressive China and did not go beyond the bilateral format till last year when Japan joined US and India. Time is ripe for both US and India to shed inhibitions if any in converting Malabar as a fine tuned mechanism to address issues during peace and conflict scenario.

The enormous challenges in the maritime domain demands coalition of the willing to draw up Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to tackle both conventional and asymmetric threats.The collective advantage of  honing of skills in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), Search and Rescue (SAR), mechanisms for preventing human trafficking, marine environment protection, Anti-Piracy, Interoperability and better understanding of the operating environment through technology far outweigh the consequences if any of the perceived displeasure of China which is increasingly under pressure from its  maritime neighbours and from the compulsions to wriggle out of the tag of a defaulter in the PCA award.

In conclusion, there are hardly any doubts that it is time to stop giving undue importance to China’s displeasure or ill-founded concerns about such well-meaning exercises which are about Military Operations Other Than War(MOOTW). In any case, China has not shown any sensitivity to India’s concerns on many issues of security. Australia should essentially be a permanent member in the forthcoming and all future edition of the Malabar exercises. While working towards a full-fledged coalition, the essential steps of inviting Australia to be an observer this time in July must be initiated without losing any time. It would be fool hardy to foreclose such an option which serves the interests of not just the four countries involved in the exercise but also the larger interests of the Indo Pacific region.

[Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd) is the Regional Director NMF at Chennai and the Director, C3S. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, C3S, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at rsvasan2010@gmail.com.]

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