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China has given a muted response to Australia’s invitation by India to naval exercises in November, despite rising tensions between the two nuclear powers.
Defence and foreign affairs analysts had expected the invitation to the Malabar exercises alongside the US and Japan would have provoked a sharper response, coming as Beijing and New Delhi negotiate the return of a Chinese soldier apprehended on the Indian side of the border.
“We have taken note of this development,” said China’s foreign affairs spokesman Zhao Lijan at a regular press conference in Beijing late on Tuesday.
“We always believe military co-operation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability,” he said.
Many in Australia had been braced for a less restrained response about the joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean by the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad.
Australia last participated in the Malabar exercises in 2007, a move heavily criticised by Beijing.
Analysts said the development was a major step by the grouping that Beijing believes is focused on countering its rise.
Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, said the Malabar invitation was the most significant example of Canberra “thickening its ties with like-minded countries in the region”.
“New Delhi’s decision to extend the invitation to us is even more consequential, indicating that Indian policymakers are overcoming their habitual caution,” Dr Fullilove said. “Beijing will be most displeased about what this development says about the focusing of minds in both the Australian and Indian capitals.”
In June, the People’s Liberation Army killed 20 Indian soldiers on the contested border, heightening New Delhi’s strategic anxiety about the rising superpower on its eastern front.
Unlike Japan and Australia, India is not a formal ally of the US and had been reluctant about Australia’s return to the navy training exercises.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said India’s invitation was an important step in the “deepening relationship” between the two countries. “It will bolster the ability of India, Australia, Japan and the US to work together to uphold peace and stability across our region,” she said.
China’s leaders have long fretted about the Quad, accusing Washington of trying to transform it into an “Asian NATO”.
Pankaj Jha, former deputy director of India’s National Security Council Secretariat, said the involvement of the full Quad demonstrated the Malabar naval exercises “are going up a level”.
“In past editions, we have seen sophisticated anti-submarine warfare, surveillance aircraft and reconnaissance aircraft all being deployed,” Mr Jha told Nikkei Asia. “Now when Australia also comes in, and there are logistics support agreements [among the four countries], it technically means the expanse of the Quad is superimposed on two regions: the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean.”
In a further sign of Australia’s strengthening defence partnership with Japan, the two countries have committed to negotiate a new agreement allowing Japan’s Self-Defence Forces to “protect Australian Defence Force assets” if they come under threat.
Senator Reynolds and her Japanese counterpart Kishi Nobuo announced the move after a meeting in Tokyo on Monday.