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China Can Hurt Australia for Malabar Exercise But QUAD is Bracing

25 October 2020

Earlier this week, India formally invited Australia to join the large-scale naval exercises to be conducted in the Bay of Bengal (3-6 November) and the Arabian Sea (17-20 November), involving in addition to the navies of India and Australia naval assets of the US and Japan.

This is a very significant development—if not militarily, certainly symbolically—for the future of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. This will be the first time that the navies of the four countries will be participating together in naval exercises.

Australia, India, Japan and the US are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad—a grouping of four Indo-Pacific democracies founded in 2007 whose main mission is to ensure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific primarily through the maintenance of the rules-based international order.

The Timing of India’s Invitation to Australia

India’s decision to invite Australia to join Exercise Malabar 2020 comes in the wake of three important geo-political developments.

First, an in-person meeting of the four foreign ministers of the Quad in Tokyo earlier this month—a significant symbolic event given the tight Covid-19 travel restrictions. At this meeting the ministers reinforced their countries’ determination to cooperate in a range of areas, including critically but not solely, in the maritime security domain. Except for US Secretary of State Pompeo, no one mentioned China specifically. But the 800-pound gorilla was very much at the meeting.

Second, India and Australia agreed on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership on 4 June 2020, an agreement which progresses cooperation in a significant number of fields, including in the military and security spheres.

Third, in April-May this year India and China were involved in deadly clashes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. Whilst tension has diminished since then, with the holding of several meetings of the corps commanders on both sides and a meeting of the Foreign Ministers last month, this on-going issue with Beijing has been a wake-up call for the Indian defence forces and Prime Minister Narendra Modi—his informal approach to dealing with Chinese President Xi now in tatters.

Can China Hurt Australia For Participating in Exercise Malabar 2020?

Canberra has very much welcomed India’s invitation to the Malabar exercise. Australia’s defence minister, Senator Linda Reynolds, stated “High-end military exercises like Malabar are key to enhancing Australia’s maritime capabilities, building interoperability with our close partners, and demonstrating our collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific”.

Australia last participated in Exercise Malabar in 2007. The then Australian prime minister, mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd, decided to pull out of the following year’s exercise to avoid offending China. However, this did not prevent a significant deterioration in the bilateral relations down the road.

Make no mistake. Australia will be made to pay for joining Exercise Malabar 2020. China has apparently “taken note” of India’s decision to invite Australia to the naval exercises.

Bilateral relations were already at an all-time low. In response to Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origin of the Corona virus and China’s handling of it, China slapped huge tariffs on Australian barley in May. New tariffs have also been imposed on Australian beef. And wine exports could be next.

Last month China expelled the last two Australian journalists from the country. It’s been almost 50 years since there hasn’t been Australian media in China. Given that China is Australia’s largest export market, taking 30 per cent of all exports, Beijing could start to really hurt Australia’s economy if it wished to do so.

The Quad is Getting Ready to Resist China

More broadly, China will not be too worried about the military aspects of the Malabar exercise, however, it will note the significant diplomatic push-back it represents to its aggressive military activities in the region, notably its effective unilateral changing of the LAC in Ladakh, its 9-dash claim over most of the South China Sea and the accompanying massive build-up of military-purposed artificial islands, and its ongoing low-level military harassment of Taiwan.

Put differently, while until relatively recently China was willing to play by the rules of the Western-led international order, this has changed progressively since President Xi took over as the head of the Communist Party of China in 2012. Accordingly, the battle lines are starting to get clearer and the Quad is firming up its resolve to stand up to China.

However, let’s be perfectly clear: the Quad is not an alliance. It is a grouping of four countries whose common interest is to ensure that the present international order—which guarantees among other things that the free flow of trade is not disrupted—is not threatened by China.

While not being an alliance per se, the Quad could nevertheless become the key security vehicle for the Indo-Pacific. However, the strengthening of the Quad will really depend on the members’ resolve to stand united in the face of the inevitable Chinese response—military, diplomatic and economic—to what Beijing will perceive as a ganging up on the Middle Kingdom.

Biden Presidency Might Act Tough on China—Good News for the Quad

Needless to say, future unacceptable Chinese military activity will not attract equal interest or response from the different Quad members. And Beijing knows this only too well and will accordingly exploit these differences for all its worth.

So what is the future of the Quad? As noted above, much will really depend on the cohesiveness of the grouping and how it responds to future Chinese behaviour. A likely Biden administration in Washington would probably be tough on China. This would be good news for the Quad. The display of American political will to fly the flag would reassure the other members of the Quad and make it more worthwhile for others, such as Canada, France, Indonesia, New Zealand and the UK to name some obvious credible candidates, to join the grouping. As Joe Stalin once said, “Quantity has a quality all its own”, a statement President Xi would surely relate to.

Dr Claude Rakisits is an Honorary Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of International Affairs, the Australian National University.

This article was originally published on the Quint here.

Flag images sourced from Wikimedia.

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