It is a signal victory for the diplomacy of the Morrison government, and a huge step forward for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, that Australia has been invited to India’s Malabar naval exercises in late November.
The US and Japan will also take part.
It is the first time since 2007 that Australia has been invited to participate. However, the nation which has really done more than any other to bring the Quads to greater strength, including the new development in the Malabar naval exercises, is China.
In a year of unremitting belligerence towards many nations, Beijing has managed to incite limited but lethal border fighting with India in Ladakh.
Far from intimidating India, this has led New Delhi, even while coping with the ravages of one of the world’s most deadly COVID-19 outbreaks, to toughen its stance towards China, effectively banning it from India’s 5G network, banning many Chinese apps, and now elevating the Malabar naval exercises to fully reflect the membership of the Quad.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne recently returned from a Quad ministerial meeting in Tokyo, the first time the four nations‘ foreign ministers have journeyed to the one city for the express purpose of a Quad meeting, rather than catching up on the sidelines of a UN or ASEAN gathering. The priority she placed on this meeting is evident in the need for Payne to endure two weeks isolation on return.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is in Asia this week and in Tokyo confirmed Australian participation in a joint sail-through in the South China Sea now under way. It is unclear whether the three navies will sail within 12 nautical miles of any Chinese island or artificial island.
The Quads first sprang into existence informally in response to the 2004 tsunami, which devastated Indonesia and hit other regional nations. It was initially the brainchild of Japan’s Shinzo Abe in his first stint as prime minister and came into formal existence in 2007.
However, the foreign ministries of several of the nations involved were cautious about Beijing’s extremely hostile reaction.
Very foolishly, the Rudd government announced in 2008 that Australia would take no further part in the Quads. This was under pressure from Beijing. Then foreign minister Stephen Smith made the announcement standing next to China’s foreign minister, a disastrous look for Australia.
This led to sustained Indian scepticism about Canberra.
However, the governments of Narendra Modi in India and Scott Morrison have pursued closer strategic co-operation.
In June this year, the prime ministers declared a comprehensive strategic partnership. This is an important achievement, although it doesn’t guarantee close relations — Australia also has a CSP with China.
Joint naval exercises such as Malabar do not equate to a military pact. However, they are extremely useful. They do signal to Beijing that the region is capable of serious military co-operation.
They also represent a distinct and welcome new stage in the Australia-India relationship.
They further constitute a renewed declaration in support of freedom of navigation, the rules-based international order and widely held norms of security behaviour.
The Malabar exercises make India and Australia, and the region, a little more secure.