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A ‘mistake’ to have walked out of Quad, Malabar exercise in 2008: Australian envoy Barry O’Farrell

Australia's High Commissioner to India, Barry O'Farrell during an interview to The Hindu in New Delhi on October 23, 2020.   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

Australia should not have walked out of the Quad, and subsequently the Malabar exercises with India, but was “delighted” at New Delhi’s decision to invite it to participate in this year’s naval exercises in November, Australian High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell said.

Referring to the his government’s announcement in 2008 that it would not participate in the Quad exercises with India, Japan and the United States, he said it probably became the reason India took three years to accept Australia’s request to rejoin the exercises, despite requests from 2017-2020.

“I can say that, with the benefit of hindsight, clearly that it [withdrawing from Malabar] was a mistake. I suspect earlier in the piece, that became a stumbling block, and that was not forgotten in terms of reassembling Australia as part of that exercise,” Mr. O’Farrell said in an interview to The Hindu

Earlier this week, the Ministry of Defence announced that all four countries of the Quadrilateral would take part in the Malabar exercises scheduled at the end of November to be held in two phases on both sides of the Indian coastline in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. This will be the first such exercise after India signed logistical agreements with all Quad partners, and is expected to see greater interoperability and use of common military platforms.

China’s protests 

While Australia pulled out from the grouping a decade ago after China’s protests at the time, India’s hesitation in reinviting it back to the exercises in the past few years was also understood to be over China’s sensitivities over a possible “military alliance” in the Indo-Pacific ranged against it. However, experts believe that growing concerns in both countries over China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific and on the border with India have accelerated the pace of Quad cooperation this year. 

When asked if New Delhi’s turnaround this year was due to the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and tensions with China, Mr. O’Farrell said that the decision was a reaction to “challenges in the neighbourhood” over a period of time, not the last few months. 

“I don’t think the invitation came about because of activities over the last couple of months [at the LAC], I think it's been the changing environment in which we live, and the recognition by countries like India and Australia, that they have to step up in the neighbourhood to deliver the sort of world we want,” he noted. 

However, Mr. O’Farrell said Australia’s policy did not envision formalising the Quad in any way, contrary to statements from U.S. State department officials, who called for formalising and regularising the interactions on the platform. He said that Australia did not see the Quad, as U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo asserted, as a “tool” to counter the challenge from China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP). 

Positive agenda 

“We have a positive agenda for the Quad, which is about shaping the neighbourhood in which we live, you know, a free, open and resilient Indo- Pacific, one where, you know, rules and norms apply and one where any disputes are resolved according to international law. It's been clear in the comments of the three foreign ministers, who are three-quarters of the Quad, that whatever we develop there is intended to be shared by all countries across the Indo Pacific, so we're not exclusivist,” he stated.

India and Australia would continue talks on a trade deal, although they would be delayed until after the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was completed later this year, which India decided to walk out from. Despite several requests from RCEP countries, especially Australia, the Modi government has refused to reconsider its decision, citing worries over Chinese goods flooding the Indian market. 

“RCEP will proceed. I understand and recognize and respect India's decision, and no one is forced to sign up to the agreement. It’s no secret that Australia was keen for India to be part of it. In the meantime, Australia will continue to engage with India bilaterally on a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA),” he said.

Full text of interview

It was a “mistake” for Australia to have walked out of the Quad and the Malabar exercise in 2008, says Australian High Commissioner Barry O’Farrell, as he welcomed India’s decision to invite Australia back to the exercises in November with the US and Japan.

The Quad foreign ministers meeting in Tokyo was followed up by India’s announcement that Australia has been invited to join the Malabar naval exercise this year. Would you say that as an arrangement, the quadrilateral between Australia-India-Japan-US is now on its way to being formalized?

I think it’s an evolving forum that, you know, brings like-minded democracies together, by looking at issues to work to work on common issues in the neighbourhood like maritime security, cyber, and in counter-terrorism. And as we saw [at the FM meet] is it’s moved into areas, you know, looking at vaccines, looking at maritime issues, looking at supply chains, critical minerals. So, it continues to be a diplomatic forum to discuss a shared outlook and shared interests within our region. It's not and I don't think it's planned to be a formal structure. But it will continue to see close partners come together to discuss common interests and outlooks and work on those for this region.

Also read: Australia’s participation in Malabar Exercise still under discussion, says U.S. official

US Secretary of State Pompeo said that actually, he believes the Quad should collaborate to counter what he called the coercion by the Chinese Communist Party. How does Australia see the purpose of the Quad?

Well, as my Foreign Minister [Marise Payne] has said, and I'm very happy to quote her: We have a positive agenda for the quad, which is about shaping the neighbourhood in which we live, you know, a free, open and resilient Indo-Pacific, one where, you know, rules and norms apply one where sovereign independence applies, and one where any disputes are resolved, according to international law. All I know is when the four foreign ministers get together, they are increasingly working collaboratively, aligning ourselves on issues that that are important to our neighbourhood at a time of unprecedented challenges, including the COVID challenge.

Also read: Malabar exercise: Quad meeting in Tokyo to discuss Australia’s entry

You said the Quad was a grouping of like-minded democracies, does that mean that certain (non-democratic) countries are disqualified from a future Indo-Pacific arrangement and which countries might join in the future?

We talk about people that share a vision. But we also make clear that ASEAN-led infrastructure is essential to the future of all the Indo-Pacific and in no way are we seeking to circumvent that. And critical to the resilient supply chain initiative that India, Australia and Japan have had discussions around. And it’s been clear in the comments of the three foreign ministers, who are three quarters of the Quad, that whatever we develop, there is intended to be shared by all countries across the Indo- Pacific, so we're not exclusivist.

Also read: Quad | The confluence of four powers and two seas

After years of requests from Canberra, India has finally agreed to invite Australia to the Malabar exercise. Why do you think it took so long?

You know, we all know that Australia withdrew from the Quad [In 2008, Australia pulled out of the Quad and Malabar exercise. From 2017 onwards, after the revival of the Quad, the Australian government had requested India to rejoin the exercises].I can say that, with the benefit of hindsight,clearly that it was a mistake. I suspect earlier in the piece, that became a stumbling block, and that was not forgotten in terms of reassembling Australia as part of that exercise. The good news is that that hasn’t stopped over the past six years, a quadrupling of the defence cooperation between India and Australia. I think that while there was this focus on for a number of years, whether or not Australia would be invited to rejoin the Quad. But that missed what was going on in the defence relationship. The AUSINDEX exercise last year was the largest joint exercise Australia has ever participated in. It was also the most complex involving submarine to submarine serials and P-8 maritime patrols across the Bay of Bengal. Now that is far bigger than any previous Malabar exercise. I haven’t seen yet the scope for the two-part Malabar plan for next month, but we clearly welcome the opportunity to participate Malabar. It is a further sign of the deepening of the defence relationship between Australia and India. Whichever way you look at it, Malabar is a good thing. It'll enhance our capabilities in working with three close partners in the Indo-Pacific to deliver stability and security in the Pacific. But beyond Malabar, there has been a whole lot of work that I think is just as important, and in some instances more important than the Malabar. So, I'm delighted that that we've got past the Malabar [question] because we can, we can we can reflect on the broad, deeper defence relationship between our two countries and, and find ways to further extend those.

Do you think New Delhi’s current concerns at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China played a part in its decision?

My view is that, you know, this was this was an invitation to be issued to Australia, not for Australia to demand of the other three partners. You know, it was their gift. I think there’s no doubt that over the last couple of years, given the increased challenges within the neighbourhood, the increased competition within the neighbourhood, that we probably all looked around and decided to work together with people that that have not just shared values, but also a shared vision for the region. I don’t think the invitation came about because of activities over the last couple of months [at the LAC], I think it's been the changing environment in which we live,and the recognition by countries like India and Australia, that they have to step up in the neighbourhood to deliver the sort of world we want.

Also read: A phantom called the Line of Actual Control

To turn to trade, despite repeated requests from other countries, including Australia, India has made it clear it will not join the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Will RCEP go ahead, minus India, later this year?

Well, I think it’s clear from what’s been said today that RCEP will proceed, and that’s a good thing. That's a good thing for the for the region. But as we’re seeing in this, in this current world, you can have relationships at many levels. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar talks about “plurilateralism”, and it’s right, that there will be a variety of relationships. So, my view is RCEP will proceed. I understand and recognise and respect India’s decision, and no one is forced to sign up to the agreement. It’s no secret that Australia was keen on India to be a part of it. But you know, what’s happened has happened. What’s expected to happen later this year will occur. In the meantime, Australia will continue to engage with India bilaterally on a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).

But won’t bilateral trade take a back seat to trade between the RCEP nations, once that agreement is in place?

Australia will continue to look at putting effort in growing trade ties between India and Australia, regardless of what is happening elsewhere. You know, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. And my point is that given what COVID-19 has done to economies across the globe, given what it’s doing to economies within the region, I am convinced that Australia’s efforts to engage India in increased trade and commerce and importantly, investment will continue apace alongside our efforts with the rest of the world and the rest of the neighbourhood.

India’s objections on RCEP weren’t just to Chinese goods flooding the market, there were specific differences with Australia on Agriculture and Dairy product access. Can the two countries overcome bilaterally what they couldn’t multilaterally?

I think sometimes it’s easier to do it bilaterally than in a multilateral forum, because you're looking for the agreement of two people, as opposed to 15 or 16. I am optimistic, and some of that optimism comes from pomegranates. In August, Indian pomegranates were allowed into the Australian market for the first time. I know that we have made progress in some of the agricultural sectors, with some of the non-tariff barriers that had existed, I only see benefit in those things continuing forward. Do I believe there is going to be a breakthrough overnight? No, my view of life is that most things take time to work out. Now, whether it’s Make in India or Atmanirbhar Bharat, Australia has elements that can assist India to achieve its economic vision. If India wants to succeed with its renewable energy mission with its batteries with its electric vehicles, Australia can offer a reliable source of the rare earths and the critical minerals that are required to deliver that mission. We already have in Macquarie infrastructure group, the largest investor in Indian infrastructure in the world. That’s an Australian company. We have the seventh largest pool of managed funds, our pension funds, and only on the eighth of October, we had a virtual interaction between six of our largest pension funds and the national investment in infrastructure fund on the opportunities that exist in India.

How much do you think the coronavirus challenge is going to actually be a driver of relations?

I think it’s increased the opportunities. I recently met with, with your health minister, and one of the observations that he made that I’d already picked up from a couple of southern Indian investors was that both Australia and India during COVID-19 have accelerated the rollout of telemedicine digital health. And, you know, we’re both big countries, you’re a big country with a big population. We are a big country with a lot of remote areas with small communities, in both those countries, tele-health, digital medicine are important. The biggest lesson out of COVID-19 is in the non-medical area, which is the need for resilient supply chains, and for other reasons, also recognising the need for diversification of markets.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 9:57:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/a-mistake-to-have-walked-out-of-quad-malabar-exercise-in-2008-australian-envoy-barry-ofarrell/article32931294.ece

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