Did India Miscalculate China’s Red Lines in Australia Snub?

Australian soldiers with Delta Company, 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment wait to finish off the last of their 7.62 mm rounds after a tactical live-fire demonstration during the Rim of the Pacific 2014 exercise.

Chinese analysts have become less concerned about the prospects of an “Asian NATO” and more tolerant of regional multilateral-security activities.

Chinese skepticism about the chances for an “Asian NATO” has translated into surprisingly calm reactions to U.S. multilateral exercises in the region over the last decade. This is illustrated in China’s reactions to Malabar itself: originally a bilateral U.S.-India exercise, Beijing had no comment on Japan’s participation as an observer in the 2009 and 2014 iterations of the exercise. When asked about the 2015 iteration, which is when Japan became a permanent member of the exercise, China’s foreign-ministry spokesman said that he did not think that the exercise, or those like it, targeted China. Beijing also had no public response to the expansion of Exercise Cope North—a U.S.-Japan exercise that expanded to include Australia and South Korea in 2012. Additionally, Beijing had no response to the enlargement of Talisman Sabre—a U.S.-Australia exercise that expanded to include Japan and New Zealand in 2015. It’s unclear why adding Australia to Malabar would be any more threatening to China than any of these other developments.

The specifics of Malabar 2017 are also unlikely to pique Chinese concerns. Unlike the 2014 and 2016 iterations of the exercise, which were held in the Western Pacific near Okinawa Island, this year’s edition will be held in the Bay of Bengal—over 1,500 miles from China. By contrast, Beijing has responded more assertively in the case of exercises held close to China or at sensitive times. For instance, a Chinese spokesman labeled a 2013 U.S.-Philippine island-landing exercise near the South China Sea as “reckless.” China also criticized U.S.-South Korea naval drills in the Yellow Sea in 2010, which took place just after North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island. One plausible provocation of this year’s Malabar is that it will feature Japan’s Izumo-class helicopter carrier for the first time; but this would be a reason for China to oppose Japan’s participation in the exercise, not Australia’s.

De-emphasizing Chinese concerns and focusing on the potential benefits of expansion—such as fostering interoperability between all four navies and underscoring commitment to the shared principles of professional seamanship and freedom of navigation—argues in favor of including Australian naval participation in a future iteration of Malabar. Reports that India might not have “closed the door” on future Australian involvement are thus encouraging. New Delhi and the other three countries should also give some consideration to a renewal of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which has been proposed by various scholars and officials, including U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris. Beijing would likely not interpret this as an incipient “Asian NATO,” but it could be useful as a way to strengthen the regional rules-based maritime order, which is certainly in the interests of all four countries and many others.

Joel Wuthnow is a research fellow for the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. He tweets at @jwuthnow. The views expressed in this analysis are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: Australian soldiers with Delta Company, 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment wait to finish off the last of their 7.62 mm rounds after a tactical live-fire demonstration during the Rim of the Pacific 2014 exercise. Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense

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