India-Australia relations: Getting over the Quad blues

 Indian Navy, AUSINDEX, Abhijit Singh, Maritime

Indian Navy ships as part of AUSINDEX

Source: Indian Navy

Last week the Indian warships INS Kamorta, INS Shivalik and INS Jyoti arrived in Western Australia’s port city of Freemantle to participate in a bilateral exercise. The military drills came close on the heels of a controversial decision by New Delhi to reject Canberra’s request for observer status at the US-India-Japan Malabar naval exercise next month. On the day the Indian contingent arrived at Freemantle, Rear Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta, the Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet, told the local media the case for Australia’s participation in Malabar-2017 rested with the Indian government, suggesting that New Delhi was still considering Canberra’s proposal.

There is speculation that India’s reluctance to accommodate Australia in the Malabar is tied to the memory of Canberra’s abrupt withdrawal from the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad); an informal grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India, formed in May 2007 as a response to increasing Chinese economic and military power in Asia. A recent article in a popular media portal had prominent Indian commentators attest to the lingering angst in New Delhi over Australia’s hurried withdrawal from the Quad a decade ago. New Delhi’s rebuff to Canberra, the respondents collectively averred, was a consequence of Australia’s dubious record of flip-flops on strategic initiatives aimed at moderating Chinese assertiveness in Asia.

The argument that New Delhi’s excessive caution vis-à-vis Australia stems from the unpleasant experience of the Quad has particular resonance in the Indian strategic community. Over the years, India’s geopolitical commentators have often portrayed Canberra’s hasty pull out from the Quad as a key factor behind the slow progress of India-Australia strategic relations. With 26 warships participating in Malabar-2007 – including three aircraft carriers – the maritime quadrilateral had been an exercise in political courage, not least since the drills were held in the Bay of Bengal (against the established precedent of exercising in the Arabian Sea), and came against the backdrop of fierce protests from China. When Australia withdrew, Indian analysts ruefully posit, it left India, Japan and the US literally in the lurch.

And yet, the proposition that India’s unwillingness to engage Australia in a multilateral naval setting comes from a deep suspicion of Canberra’s strategic credentials is devoid of any real merit. The chronology of developments leading up to and following the Malabar exercise in 2007 illustrates clearly that the narrative of Australia’s questionable strategic conduct has been exaggerated.

In 2007, there was not one, but two iterations of the Malabar exercises. The first, held in April that year in the Western Pacific, comprised the navies of India, Japan and the US. The exercise was deemed hostile by Chinese officials, but Beijing did not issue a formal diplomatic protest until the May 2007 announcement of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The strategic convergence of four powerful states in the Asian maritime commons convinced Beijing that the Pacific’s big democracies had ganged up with India to form an anti-China coalition. With a view to forestall any further trouble, the Chinese leadership issued a demarche to each of the Quad’s four member states.

Even as Beijing upped the political ante, the Indian navy pressed ahead with plans to hold the second edition of Malabar 2007 in the Indian Ocean. Enthused by the high levels of cooperation experienced in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, India’s naval leadership was keen to expand the scope of engagement with partner navies. The Indian navy also sought to raise the complexity of the Malabar to more fully explore the realm of expeditionary operations (a start having been made the previous year with the participation of a US expeditionary strike group).

Notably, Indian naval planners believed that a multilateral exercise in the Indian Ocean was a good way to optimise collaboration, obviating the need for separate exercises with the Australian and Japanese navies in the Pacific. Malabar 2007, in fact, would be a five-sided affair with the added presence of the Singapore navy. So even though defence minister, AK Antony harboured some misgivings about multilateral engagement with the US and its allies, New Delhi agreed to a five-way naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal.

Unfortunately, the move misfired. While Malabar 2007 was a tactical success, it created a political firestorm that rattled New Delhi. In the days leading up to the exercise, India’s communist parties staged massive street protests, castigating the United Progressive Alliance government for its ‘sovereign surrender’ to US designs. Communist cadres organised massive protest rallies, including two processions – one starting from Kolkata and the other from Chennai – that terminated at Visakhapatnam, the Indian navy’s premier base on the east coast. Under pressure, Antony issued a clarification that Malabar-2007 was just a one-off naval drill and not an ‘Asian-NATO’.

Around the same time, Australia was beginning to have its own doubts about the Quad. The newly elected labour government was keen to make amends to what many in Canberra saw as a botched attempt at containing China. Eager to restore ties with Beijing, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd looked for an opportunity to engineer a thaw. He got his chance a few months later when the Chinese foreign minister visited Canberra. At a joint press conference with China in February 2008, Australia’s foreign minister Stephen Andrews announced his country’s withdrawal from the Quad.

Given the dire nature of its own circumstances, New Delhi did not publically protest Canberra’s decision. On the contrary, Indian officials seemed secretly relieved that Australia had shown the gumption to pull out of an increasingly unviable enterprise. While Canberra’s move seemed outwardly unpleasant, it freed the political leadership in India, Japan and the US from the responsibility of announcing a formal withdrawal from the Quadrilateral. Regardless of the negative press that accompanied Canberra’s ‘unexpected’ exit, there was palpable relief that a bad experiment had come to an end.

Even today, India’s political commentators who witnessed events first hand take a dispassionate view of the Quadrilateral-2007. New Delhi’s hesitation to include the Royal Australian Navy in the Malabar exercises this time around, they suggest, isn’t so much about Canberra’s Quad credentials, than it is about Australia’s burgeoning economic and political ties with China. A section of New Delhi’s policy elite believes that China’s associations in Australia are so vast and intricate that Beijing may even have infiltrated Canberra’s political establishment.

In a purely operational context too, maritime-quadrilateral engagement doesn’t seem to be a very profitable proposition, at least not in the present circumstances. India’s maritime policymakers know that the Indian navy lacks effective surveillance and anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capability to detect, track and prosecute Chinese submarines in the near-seas. By inviting Australia to join to Malabar, the PLAN may be provoked into raising the tempo of its submarine operations, resulting in the loss of strategic leverage for New Delhi in its maritime neighbourhood.

India’s real problem is that, while it is politically stronger on the global stage, it still lacks the combat capability to present a credible balance to Chinese naval power in South Asia. The act of turning the trilateral Malabar into a quadrilateral overnight might result in some tactical gains for the Indian navy, but could prove strategically costly, should China decide to raise the heat in the Indian Ocean.

That very scenario, paradoxically, could mark the start of a new maritime-Quadrilateral in the Indo-Pacific.

This commentary originally appeared in The Interpreter.

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