No Australian presence in naval drills

The government has decided to go ahead with this year’s ‘Malabar’ naval exercises trilaterally without including the Australian Navy

April 29, 2018 12:09 am | Updated 12:10 am IST - NEW DELHI

A file photo of the recently held naval exercise ‘Malabar-2017.’

A file photo of the recently held naval exercise ‘Malabar-2017.’

In a setback for the India-U.S.-Australia-Japan “Quad” in the Indo-Pacific, the government has decided to go ahead with this year’s ‘Malabar’ naval exercises trilaterally without including the Australian Navy, The Hindu has learnt.

Confirming that the 22nd edition would be held off Guam between June 7 and 15, Navy spokesperson Captain D.K. Sharma said: “India, U.S. and Japan are participating in it. We are sending a stealth frigate, a corvette and a tanker, which will be supported by the Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft Boeing P-8I.”However, the spokesperson declined to comment on why Australia’s request to join the exercises wasn’t accepted.

The move, which was first reported by the Australian media this week, is being seen there as a “snub” to the Malcolm Turnbull government, which has unsuccessfully requested to join Malabar for three years. It is also being seen as a signal of accommodation sent to China ahead of the Wuhan Summit between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping that concluded on Saturday.

In December 2017, Australian Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Frances Adamson had told journalists in Delhi that Australia stood “very willing” to join the Malabar exercise and had discussed it during the “2+2” dialogue. In January 2018, PM Turnbull said the talks to join Malabar were “progressing well”. Both the US and Japan are understood to have supported the move, and diplomats indicated it was India that vetoed it.

The decision to decline Australia’s request comes along with a slew of decisions by the Modi government, including the cancellation of public rallies by the Dalai Lama in Delhi, putting off a parliamentarian’s conference on Tibet, and advising government officials to stay away from such events in a memo in February 2018 from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The memo, that cited a “sensitive time” in relations with China, appeared to have been referring to PM Modi’s “informal summit” with President Xi in Wuhan on April 27-28.

A senior MOD source said the decision to include anyone outside of the three (US, Japan, India) would be taken by the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of External Affairs in consultation with the Ministry of Defence. “The Navy has no role in deciding who all should participate in it,” he said.

When asked whether the decision was a gesture to China’s concerns of a “containment policy” by the four Indo-Pacific powers, another senior government official said that India “doesn’t see military exercises as political messages”, and pointed out that India has stepped up bilateral naval exercises with Australia in the past two years, with the Indian Air Force will be taking part in the “Pitch Black” Air exercises in Australia for the first time in August 2018.

However, the official also said that the Quadrilateral process between India-US-Japan-Australia, which was launched in November 2017, was in incipient stages and any military cooperation between its members “was not quite there yet”.

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