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.

India has denied Australia’s request to send a flotilla to the annual U.S.-Japan-India trilateral Malabar exercise, to be held in the Bay of Bengal in July. Citing Indian diplomats and military officials, Reuters reported in late May that New Delhi’s decision to deny the request was intended to assuage Chinese concerns about encirclement and avoid a stronger Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean. If true, then this would represent a misreading of Chinese perceptions: China likely would not have interpreted Australia’s participation in the exercise as a major security challenge, nor would it have overreacted. Given the potential benefits, India should consider including Australia in this exercise or in a future iteration of the exercise.

Analysts have discussed a range of possible motives behind India’s decision, including Indo-Australian bilateral tensions over several nonmilitary issues and New Delhi’s general aversion to dramatically increasingly multilateral security cooperation with the United States and its key Asian allies. But China was also a likely factor. The backdrop for India’s decision was recent tensions in Sino-Indian relations due to issues such as the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims as “southern Tibet”) in April and India’s decision not to send a delegation to China’s Belt and Road Initiative summit in May. India’s logic may have been that denying Australia would accommodate a key Chinese interest, and thus lower the chance that Beijing would respond in a tit-for-tat manner, such as by increasing naval deployments in the Indian Ocean. China may have encouraged such thinking: a Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman alluded to this by noting that decisions regarding routine exercises like Malabar must take into account the “security concerns” of “all parties” in the region.

Indeed, developing a U.S.-Japan-India-Australia security cooperation may have once constituted a kind of “red line” for Beijing. In 2007, as part of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s vision of creating an Asian “arc of freedom,” which was strongly supported by Vice President Dick Cheney, the four countries held a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and, along with Singapore, staged an expanded Malabar in the Bay of Bengal. Despite assurances to the contrary, including from Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, some Chinese analysts concluded that the developments augured an “Asian NATO” that targeted China’s rise in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and Beijing formally demarched all four capitals. The next year, the new Rudd government exited the “Quad” after deciding that the benefits were not worth the costs to Australia’s economic relationship with China.

Over the ensuing decade, however, Chinese analysts have become less concerned about the prospects of an “Asian NATO” and more tolerant of regional multilateral-security activities, such as Malabar. Although some Chinese pundits continue to circulate the theory that the United States is seeking to coalesce its allies and partners into a kind of Cold War-style containment structure, most sophisticated analysts reject this notion. This is based on their understanding of the reasons why such an alliance is unlikely. Those include India’s nonaligned status and fundamental opposition to alliances; historical tensions and unresolved territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea; and the close economic cooperation that many states share with China, which has led many of them to avoid relying too closely on the United States as a security partner. Rear Adm. Yang Yi, a research fellow at China’s National Defence University, summed up this view by dismissing an “Asian NATO” and calling on China to “maintain the calmness of a great power.”