Malabar Exercise: India's deferential approach towards China

Malabar exercise is an annual trilateral navy exercise between India-US-Japan in the Bay of Bengal. Its significance has grown in the context of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. India has repeatedly rejected Australia’s request to be part of the exercise. Some perceive this as a deferential approach towards China as India is concerned that China might get threatened if Australia is included. Including Australia will add a defence angle to the Quad.

At the same time, others argue that disproportionate focus is being given to this one metric. While Tanvi Madan argues that India’s decision on Huawei is a more important metric, Dhruva Jaishankar cites India’s other engagements in the IOR region to suggest that India is not being deferential.

While it is true that India has undertaken several other initiatives in IOR to balance Chinese threat, the Malabar exercise has special significance.

India’s all other initiatives are only diplomatic efforts and operational (like collection information) at best. None of these initiatives does anything concrete militarily and hence does not pose any concrete deterrence. Besides, India has a history of non-confrontational approach towards China in the IOR. For instance, India refused US’s offer for joint patrols in the South China Sea in 2016. Similarly,  after courting Mongolia for a while, India backed out of supporting Mongolia when it was choked by China, for the fear of Chinese retaliation. This suggests a clear pattern: India avoids any direct confrontation with China, a pattern of deferential approach towards China unless it’s upon our direct border as in Doklam.

India’s rejection of Australia’s request should be seen in this context. Counting the “number of initiatives” in IOR is not an appropriate metric because all of them do not pose the same threat to Chinese and hence do not send the same message. It is confusing quantity for quality.

It is true that India has done air exercises with Australia but Malabar exercise is different because of the involvement of 4 Quad nations giving it a more credible deterrence signalling capability.

In other words, if we look at the initiatives that pose a concrete threat to Chinese, there’s hardly any, and India has been backing out of all such opportunities.

One might argue that the decision to reject Australia’s membership in Malabar should be seen in the light of Post-Wuhan spirit. But, one must not forget that the Chinese temporary lull is tactical. It is just pausing its aggression as it is tied with trade war and does not want to aggravate it. Once the US-China tensions subside, China can be back.

In long term, India cannot compete with China economically. In that scenario, in the Indian Ocean, increasing the maritime threat in IOR is often advocated as a strategy to contain Chinese threat at India’s land border. With this deferential approach, there’s no hope that India would pursue such an approach.

While China has taken every opportunity to push India to the wall (Doklam, NSG, Azhar Masood, CPEC), India hesitates to take even small steps. China openly violates India’s sovereignty in PoK, but India is afraid to even include another country in naval exercises.

US and others gave a benefit of doubt to China hoping that prosperous China would become more democratic and less aggressive. Clearly, it has not happened, in fact, the reverse happened. It would only be detrimental to India’s interest to give any such benefit of doubt to China. India should pursue all opportunities to contain China!

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