Exercise Malabar shadow over Japan-Australia-India Trilateral Dialogue

By Rekha Bhattacharjee

Sydney, April 30 (IANS): The Third Japan-Australia-India Trilateral Dialogue meeting between senior representatives from  India,  Japan  and  Australia  has concluded in  Canberra  Saturday  even as the  foreign affairs commentators continue to express doubts over the revival of a wider quadrilateral grouping also involving the  US.

The Third Japan-Australia-India Trilateral Dialogue Senior Officials Meeting was attended by, besides Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar;  Shinsuke Sugiyama, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan and Frances Adamson, Foreign Affairs Secretary of Australia.

The participants were scheduled to exchange views on wide range of issues including regional affairs in the Indo-Pacific and Japan-Australia-India trilateral cooperation.

It is yet to be clarified whether  India  has shown any inclination to get over her reported reluctance  to permit  Australia  to observe this year’s iteration of the annual Exercise Malabar that the Indian navy conducts with  Japan  and the  United States.

The naval exercise is scheduled to be organised in  Indian Ocean  in July this year.

The reports that India is all set to ”˜block’ Australia from the naval exercises is being interpreted by some Australian foreign affairs and regional security analysts as a snag in the Indo-Australia bilateral relationship.

“Reports that the Indian government intends to block  Australia’s participation in this year’s Malabar naval exercises  are  a setback for  Canberra. However,  better indicators of the health of the Australia-India bilateral relationship may be found elsewhere,” writes Prof Ian Hall of Australian  Institute  of  International Affairs.

The Indian reluctance to allow  Australia  join Exercise Malabar as an observer has confirmed a widely-held belief that  China  continues to influence the formation of various strategic alliances in the region.

New Delhi  also has other reasons for dragging its feet over  Australia’s inclusion in the Exercise Malabar as  Australia  cannot afford to antagonise its largest trading partner  China.

A former diplomat has gone a step further and has asserted that the antipodeans are living in a “Chinese world”.

“One part is what the Australian public and politicians see, and perhaps understand,” Stephen FitzGerald,  Australia’s first ambassador to  China  explained.

“This is China as state: Great Power, paramount power in Asia, asserting a sphere of influence in immediate neighbouring countries and seas, challenger to the US, economic giant, largest trading partner of Australia, New Zealand, ASEAN, Japan, Korea, and significant investor in all our economies,” the former Ambassador said  while delivering  2017 Whitlam Oration in Sydney six weeks back.

The former Ambassador’s oration was aptly titled as Managing Australian foreign policy in a Chinese  world.

It’s become increasingly hard for  Australia  to formulate a policy for  China  which happens to be  Australia’s largest trading partner.

There are serious questions around how  Australia  balances its alliance commitments against its economic dependence on  China.

In the light of the trading relations with  China  dominating her foreign policy to a great extent, it becomes harder for  New Delhi  to trust  Australia  in its commitment to the quadrilateral alliance. The fact there has been a precedent of  Australia  bowing to the Chinese diktat and withdrawing from Quadrilateral Alliance (in 2007), makes one understand why  India  has blocked  Australia  from Exercise Malabar.

Australian naval forces participated in Exercise Malabar in 2007. A  strong diplomatic demarche from  Beijing  about the deepening Australia-India-Japan-US military ties had altered the alliance popularly known as the “Quad’.

The current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had initiated the Quadrilateral Security  Dialogue (QSD) between Asia’s maritime democracies:  Australia,  India,  Japan, and the  United States  in 2006-07 during his first term as prime minister.

Australia, which was led by a Chinese-speaking Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, backtracked from Exercise Malabar in 2007.   Australia  also withdrew from the parallel quadrilateral strategic dialogue initiative soon after.

The efforts to revive the Quadrilateral alliance have been initiated at a time when  China  is flexing its military muscle in  South China sea.

The Indian reluctance to allow  Australia  to participate in Exercise Malabar is also being linked by some commentators to recent changes in the Australian immigration laws. The move to scrap the so-called 457 visa (also known as work permits) program is likely to affect the skilled Indian workforce the most.

Rekha Bhattacharjee can be contacted at  vijaybhatta56@gmail.com  

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