On September 12, India and Australia commenced their first-ever bilateral maritime exercise, AUSINDEX. The joint naval exercise comes only weeks before the much larger, multilateral MALABAR exercise, hosted by India, which Australia recently expressed interest in rejoining after a seven-year absence.
The annual MALABAR naval exercise has become a proxy for Asia-Pacific countries' anxieties over China. But two weeks ago, Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews let it be known that Australia would very much like to be included in the exercise, even though they originally bailed on the exercises over fear of upsetting China. The question is: How big a diss will China think Australian participation in regional military exercises actually is?
Originally a bilateral US-India event, MALABAR has, in years past, included Japan, Australia, and Singapore, and served as a symbolic military manifestation of the so-called "quad" grouping of the four largest democracies in the Asia-Pacific. China formally protested this grouping in 2007, accusing the members of a containment agenda.
In 2008, Australia, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, made the decision to drop out of the exercise in order to smooth over relations with China. At the time, Australia was concerned that participation in MALABAR, and the parallel Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (QSD), would "imperil the trajectory of its relations with China" and could force Australia to choose between its primary security partner (the US) and its primary economic partner (China) — a "guns or butter" decision that, at the time, they felt had no happy medium.
However, earlier this week, a very public "political bloodletting" in Australia resulted in a change in prime ministers — and perhaps a change in outlook toward MALABAR and the broader relationship with China. An Australian return to the grouping could send a signal to China about the reasoning driving cooperation among the four nations and could be read as a reaction to China's activities in the South China Sea and beyond.
MALABAR began in 1992 with the US and India, but has evolved into a joint exercise among some of the Asia-Pacific's largest democracies. The exercise has grown in complexity since its inception, the most recent iteration of which took place near Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, in July 2014. With participation from India, the US, and Japan, MALABAR 2014 included search-and-rescue exercises, helicopter cross-deck landings, underway replenishments, gunnery and anti-submarine warfare exercises, "visit, board, search, and seize operations" (VBSS), and liaison officer exchanges.
The exercise is "designed to enhance maritime cooperation among the navies of the participating nations… [and] further hone individual capacity to conduct operations in a multi-national environment," but has a clear political signaling effect, as well.
"A more active quadrilateral military consultation could also be seen as a response not only to China's activities in the South China Sea, but to its territorial ambitions more generally," Dr. Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News. "China and India do have a disputed land border, and China claims territory that has long been part of India. There have been border incursions, including this week."
"There is a clear ideological dimension to [MALABAR]," Dr. Adam Lockyer, senior lecturer of Security Studies at Macquarie University and 2015 Fulbright Scholar in US-Australia Alliance Studies, said. "The Australian Government is fairly open about this point. This is why the former Rudd government pulled out. As such, the Chinese, with some justification, would view [Australia's return] as being confrontational."
Japan only recently confirmed its participation in the October 2015 MALABAR exercise in the Bay of Bengal, and talk of possible inclusion of Australia in future exercises harkens back to the dust-up over 2007's Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue.
An initiative of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and supported by the US, India, and Australia, the QSD partners met informally on the sidelines of the May 2007 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Manila and discussed expanding naval exercises. The broader QSD effort made little progress, though, in the wake of China's sharp formal protests and an Australian change in government that ushered in the center-left Labor Party and its view of China as an economic opportunity rather than a security threat.
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And in fact, another Australian prime minister shake-up this week has affected the nation's stance toward further participation (military or otherwise) in the quad club. On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, facing declining popularity in the polls, was ousted in a 54–44 vote by his Labor Party colleagues.
"The new (as of yesterday) Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is from the same party as the conservative Abbott, but is more moderate," Lockyer told VICE News. "He sits somewhere between the conservative Abbot and center-left Rudd. He is a liberal conservative of the type that is not found in American politics anymore — perhaps think a Rockefeller. His instinct will be to make money. In China, Turnbull is likely to see a billion customers. In short, with Abbott, I would have bet on the QSD being up and going again soon; with Labor Party in power, I would have bet against it; [and] with Turnbull, it could go either way."
So what is the future of MALABAR? Will the exercise expand in a permanent way to include these four large democracies? The US is in favor of expanding MALABAR into a permanent multilateral exercise to demonstrate stronger ties between DC and Delhi, according to Robert Scher, assistant secretary of defense for the Office of Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities.
"Why can't we look at regularizing multilateral MALABAR all the time?" Scher said during a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We've done it occasionally and then we kind of fall back and then we go forward a little more."
Indian sensitivities to Chinese reaction play a role in the discussion, too. China considered MALABAR a "putative maritime entente" in 2007, and India has demonstrated reluctance to participate in multilateral exercises featuring groups of countries that could be perceived as threats to China.
"The Indian government certainly would like to strengthen its defense ties and its degree of operability with partners in the Indian Ocean, but always keeps an eye on how China might respond," Ayres told VICE News.
India is at least willing to continue to test China's response to a reunion with Australia, though on a slightly smaller scale, with AUSINDEX.
The delicate balancing act of MALABAR is emblematic of the broader challenge so essential to the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region. All countries are furiously trying to figure out how to balance commercial and other soft power interests against the hard power of military force. But there's no guarantee that economic cooperation will bring prosperity any more than military cooperation will bring peace.
Follow Shannon Hayden on Twitter: @ShannonKHayden