Australia has the longest stretch of Indian Ocean coastline in the world longer than even the Indian Coastline. However as the name suggests it is India which counts in this Ocean. Australia has been playing the role of a poodle so long to USA the Sher Khan that it is not taken seriously by other Countries even in Asia. It is a country that has rarely been on the top of the minds of policy-makers thousands of kilometres away in the Asian States. A paper by the Australia India Institute in May states: “Australia has long neglected the Indian Ocean region and has often effectively outsourced its defence needs and security relationships there to the United States. That approach has probably reduced Australia’s influence in the region and reduced its options in shaping the strategic environment.”
Recently India rebuffed Australia’s effort to join the trilateral Malabar drills in the Indian Ocean, held with the United States and Japan, two nations Australia shares close ties with. This has come at a time when Indian-Australian cooperation seemed to be on the upswing as per the Australian perception. Thus many experts and not so expert all see this as a slight heaped on Australia by India in order to placate China. Such people cannot take away their blinkers and will always try to see the world through the prism of Americans, Europeans and now the Chinese.
The Malabar drills go back to 1992 when they were held between the United States and India. They were scrapped in 1998 after India’s nuclear tests and resumed in 2002. Australia had been the second country after USA to declare sanctions on India. In retaliation India too had forbidden Quantas flights from India. Even after normalisation, there is still no Quantas fight direct from New Delhi. Japan became a permanent partner in Malabar Drills only in 2015. Earlier in 2007 when a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue had begun with Australia included, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd later pulled Australia out after holding the first meeting in Canberra in 2013, due to fear of China. This is one reason for the Indian rebuff, as elephant always remembers even when kangaroos are forgetful. A Quad-plus Dialogue was held last February in New Delhi, but it was regarded as “second-track”, meaning no government officials or military. The ‘plus’ countries were Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Next reason is the slow movement in supply of uranium by Australia to India in spite of all the bilateral treaties. This may be due to pressure by the Chinese or the Americans on Australia. So now India has got a chance to put its own pressure.
Then there is the slow movement on clearance to Adani Group of India for coal mining in NSW. This may be an important reason for the rebuff, as Australia agrees to all such Chinese demands without any resistance.
The most important reason for the rebuff is the behaviour of Australian Govt right after the conclusion of the visit to India by their Prime Minister along with a fairly large delegation. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull travelled to India in April, meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two discussed security cooperation, trade and Services issues as part of an Australian plan that would deepen ties with India more generally and work to uphold the rule of law. “The strategic interests of our two nations are clearly converging,” he said during his visit. “Cooperation on regional stability sits squarely in the interests of both our nations.”
Then right after the visit within less than 72 hours Australians issued their new visa regulation which seemed to insult the Indians and nowadays India gives it back instantly. On one hand this Turnbull fellow wanted to increase bilateral trade by exporting what Australian have……dairy products, minerals and higher education and on the other hand not ready to take what India has……among other things, skilled workers and IT professionals. Then the timing of the new visa regulation also coincided with those issued by Washington and that principality that calls itself with a lofty name of United Kingdom. And still people are wondering as to why India has given the rebuff. So thinks the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Andrew Davies. He said a four nation drill “would show a collective approach to maritime security, and a shared resolve among four major democracies. It would probably be seen in Beijing as an anti-China coalition, which would be true to an extent – the major challenge to the established maritime order is coming from [China].”
Whereas Dr David Brewster, an Oxford scholar who is head of the Australia-India Institute at Melbourne University, said “India’s position on Malabar is not so much to placate China, but it is driven by a view that it is best to take the relationship with Australia one step at a time. There will be the AUSINDEX naval drills this month off the coast of Perth and the new cooperative relationships are quietly being built between the armies and air forces of the two countries. However, he said, the Indian foreign ministry did not wish China to get the impression it was building an anti-China coalition.
The move by India was naturally welcomed by China, whose Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “I think India is also clear about the consideration behind this behaviour.”
Dhruva Jaishankar of Brookings India, who recently contributed to a report on perceptions of the US in the Indo-Pacific, published by think tank the Perth USASIA Centre, said: “The question is what Australia’s addition would add to the mix beyond political signalling to China…. Many have ascribed India’s decision to perceived concerns about China, but given in particular India’s public criticism and boycotting of [the Belt and Road Initiative], and relations with the Dalai Lama, that explanation is unconvincing.” He did not believe this would affect the growing India-Australia security relationship. Davies said the US would welcome Australian involvement if India did, as would Japan, albeit more cautiously.
Australia , the paper warns that Australia should not get caught between competing Chinese and Indian interests in the region, but also that, “India will likely seek to maintain what strategic advantages it has over China in the region: including developing its naval and air power in cooperation with partners such as the United States, Australia, Japan and France.”
That seems at odds with denying Australia a place in the Malabar drills, but it may also be not a question of why not, but when. Says Brewster, “I have no doubt that Australia will become part of the Malabar exercises, but we need to move at India’s pace.”
India, for its part, is not afraid to annoy China any time. India is selling its Akash missiles to Vietnam and training submariners on Russian Kilo-class subs. The two nation’s elevated ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership last year, with a defence focus on their relations. India has started seeing everything from its own point of view. Therefor it was clear signal to Australia that it should not take India for granted. India will never play second fiddle to any one, be it China or the USA or Russia. Also in the Indian Ocean, as the very name suggests that India matters a lot.