India plans to invite Australian Navy to join Malabar exercise

A picture of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is displayed on a conference screen.

India is planning to invite Australia to join its annual Malabar naval exercise as it seeks to strengthen its relationship with other Asia-Pacific countries amid ongoing tensions with China.

India has yet to issue a formal invitation, but officials said it was in the pipeline after both sides agreed to improve defence cooperation at a virtual summit on June 4.

Japan and the United States have already been invited to join the exercise.

“The timing of India potentially letting Australia into Malabar would be especially significant at this juncture,” said Derek Grossman, researcher at the Washington-based RAND Corporation who worked in the U.S. intelligence community for more than a decade. “It would send a significant message to China that the Quad — U.S., Australia, Japan, and India — are de facto conducting joint naval exercises, even if not technically conducted under the auspices of a Quad event.”

An Indian Navy sailor stands guard on the deck of the INS Shivalik during the inauguration of joint naval exercises with the United States and Japan in Chennai, India in 2017.
Photographer: Arun Shankar/AFP via Getty Images

“Such a move involves not just geopolitical considerations but also logistical ones since it would mean at least four navies participating. The question is how do we still ensure the exercise remains meaningful for all the four?” said an Indian military source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We also need to consult our Japanese and American counterparts.”

Diplomatic sources said the move would be a logical next step after the virtual summit between the two countries, where they signed a mutual logistics support agreement, a document that will allow the two militaries to access each other’s bases and help the militaries share resources.

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“Both sides had been harbouring reservations about Australia’s inclusion in the exercise and what its geopolitical implications would be.

“But both sides have come to agree that strategic concerns are now too overwhelming to be ignored,” an Indian diplomatic source said, pointing to Chinese aggression in the region and its frayed ties with both India and Australia.

A statement released following the virtual summit of the two nations did not name China, but added that “many of the future challenges are likely to occur in, and emanate from, the maritime domain”.

Relations between India and China have hit their lowest point in decades following a stand-off along their disputed Himalayan border and a clash on June 15 in the Galwan Valley that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and resulted in an undisclosed number of Chinese casualties.

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