India to take a call on Australia's inclusion in Malabar next week

Decision at Defence Ministry meeting early next week could bring all Quad countries together in annual war games

Updated - July 10, 2020 01:09 am IST

Published - July 09, 2020 08:52 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

A warship takes part in a Malabar exercise. File

A warship takes part in a Malabar exercise. File

India will take a decision on whether to include Australia in the Malabar exercises with Japan and the U.S. at a Defence Ministry meeting early next week, according to a defence source. The decision, if taken, could bring all Quad countries together as part of the annual war games.

“The general consensus is that Australia should join. A discussion is going to happen in the Defence Ministry on this issue next week,” the defence source said on condition of anonymity.

As reported by The Hindu  on June 3, after years of reluctance, India said it was open to Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar as an observer. The move comes in the midst of the ongoing stand-off with China on the border, the biggest crisis along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in over five decades. Australia’s inclusion would be seen as a possible first step towards the militarisation of the Quad coalition, something Beijing has opposed in the past.

Once the government takes a decision to include Australia, as per procedure, the other partner nations — Japan and the U.S. — have to be informed to secure their consent, after which a formal invitation would be extended to Australia. Japan and the U.S. have been keen on Canberra’s inclusion for sometime now and have been pushing India to consider it.

The Malabar exercise, which has been delayed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, should take place towards the end of 2020, the source said. The inclusion of Australia in the Malabar exercises would mark a major shift for India’s Indo-Pacific plans. Malabar began as a bilateral naval exercise between India and the U.S. in 1992, and was expanded into a trilateral format with the inclusion of Japan in 2015.

Observer status

In April 2017, The Hindu  was the first to report of Australia’s request for observer status in the trilateral exercise. Since then, Australia has made repeated requests to join the exercises and in January 2018, former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had said talks on the Malabar exercises were “progressing well”. However, India did not include Australia in the exercises in 2018 and 2019, while the bilateral AUSINDEX naval exercise expanded in scope and complexity.

On requests from several countries for trilateral naval exercises with India, the source said there was a growing tendency towards greater exercises. However, it has to be seen how this can be done, looking at own operating schedule, existing exercise calendar, how the expansion would be different from the original bilateral exercise in terms of scope and complexity, and also the political factors, the source added.

Expanding cooperation

On the expanding strategic cooperation with Australia, the source said, “There are a considerable number of things we are doing with Australia.” Last month, at the ‘virtual summit’ between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian PM Scott Morrison, the two countries signed the long pending Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and also elevated their partnership to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. A joint declaration on a shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo- Pacific was also announced. 

On July 1, Mr. Morrison announced Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, which he termed a “significant pivot”, a A$270 billion 10-year defence plan which includes, for the first time, land, sea and air-based long-range and hypersonic strike missiles for Australia. He also launched the 2024 structure plan.

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