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CWA # 367, 30 October 2020

Indo-Pacific
Australia joins the Malabar exercise. However, the Quad has a long way to go

  Harini Madhusudan

What could be deciphered from the timing of India's invitation to Australia? How have the Australia-China relations fared in the past years? What has been Australia's commitment to Quad? 

The US, India, and Australia are in direct confrontation with China; Japan too, on multiple occasions has shown its stance against China's activities in the Indo Pacific. 'Quad' which stood as an alliance of democratic countries to ensure the freedom of movement and open seas, placed in the context of the announcement of Australia joining the Malabar exercises, can be seen as being overtly anti- China. What could be deciphered from the timing of India's invitation to Australia? How have the Australia-China relations fared in the past years? What has been Australia's commitment to Quad? 

Australia rejoins the Malabar
On 19 October, India announced that Australia would join the Malabar naval exercises scheduled for November 2020, to be held in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The announcement comes following a successful meeting among the foreign ministers of the four countries in Japan on 6 October, and marks the participation of all four members of the Quad. Barry O' Farrel, Australia's High Commissioner to India, in an interview was 'delighted' for being invited by New Delhi to join the Malabar exercise and called it a 'mistake' for walking out in 2008. He said in an interview: "I can say that, with the benefit of hindsight, clearly that it [withdrawing from Malabar] was a mistake. I suspect earlier in the piece, that became a stumbling block, and that was not forgotten in terms of reassembling Australia as part of that exercise." 

The invitation to join the exercises has come after three years since Australia had been requesting to participate. Since 2017, India-Australia relationship has steadily improved, indicating that the bilateral relations extend beyond the China factor. It can be seen building on the Morrison- Modi's Comprehensive Strategic Partnership from June 2020, and is expected to be followed by multiple trade deals.  

Australia's Commitment to the Quad 
In 2008, Australia walked out of the Malabar exercises and faded away from the Quad after fears of a sharp response from China. In 2017, Australia requested observer status; since then, it has been requesting to join the Malabar exercises. Though there were statements in 2019 revealing that Australia would be invited, its participation was formalized after the Quad meeting on 6 October. The announcement comes at a time when the Australia-China relations have hit a low point. Joining the Malabar exercise could be an attempt signalling a message towards China. Australia's Policy, however, has not shown any intention of formalizing its participation with the Quad. 

Australia- China Dynamics
Mistrust and anger between Australia and China have been brewing. In 2017, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) warned about the Chinese attempts to influence decision-making in Canberra with the donations from Chinese businesspeople to local politicians. Ever since there has been a public outcry forcing the Australian leadership to step back in their engagement with China. Later in the same year, Senate passed legislation to curb such 'foreign interference.' Beijing responded by freezing diplomatic visits from Australia. In 2018, Australia banned the Huawei, becoming the first country to do, citing national security reasons. In July 2020, Australia moved from its neutrality on the South China Sea dispute and revealed its rejection of the legal basis of China's maritime claims in the South China Sea, when it submitted a Note Verbale to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLSC). 

In 2020, the COVID-19 further deteriorated the relations, when Australia called for a global investigation into the origin. Later, the relations worsened further with another issue; China detained Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen and high-profile host for the CGTN, for endangering national security. Two correspondents working for an Australian media in China returned home on the advice of diplomats when the Chinese authorities investigated them. The animosity has been expanding; the trade relations also suffered, when China announced tariffs on barley and banning beef from four firms. The dispute has extended to include milk, cotton, and coal, adding a loss worth of millions of dollars in trade. 

The Future of Quad 
Though China has been the focus of the Quad for the past five years, this is the first time there is an overt anti- China stance. The four members joining the Malabar exercises, can be interpreted as the Quad has a military focus, with their own individual responses to the members' territorial, economic or maritime disputes with China. Despite the absence of a strong agreement from the Quad, it has managed to invite China's concern, who had in the past years, been dismissing the seriousness of the group, making it apt for a counterbalance strategy in the Indo- Pacific.

However, a security alliance is unlikely considering the four members' threat of China are prioritised differently

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