Chinese influence seen as tension rises in Indo-Pacific grouping

The third Japan-Australia-India trilateral dialogue among senior representatives from the three countries has concluded in Canberra even as foreign affairs' commentators continue to express doubts over the revival of a wider quadrilateral grouping also involving the US.

The meeting was attended by, besides Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, Shinsuke Sugiyama, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan, and Frances Adamson, Foreign Affairs Secretary of Australia.

The participants were scheduled to exchange views on a wide range of issues, including regional affairs in the Indo-Pacific and Japan-Australia-India trilateral cooperation.

It is yet to be clarified whether India has shown any inclination to get over its reported reluctance to permit Australia to observe this year's iteration of the annual Exercise Malabar that the Indian Navy conducts with Japan and the United States.The naval exercise is scheduled to be conducted in the Indian Ocean in July.

The reports that India is all set to "block" Australia from the drill is being interpreted by some Australian foreign affairs and regional security analysts as a snag in the Indo-Australia bilateral relationship.

"Reports that the Indian government intends to block Australia's participation in this year's Malabar naval exercises are a setback for Canberra. However, better indicators of the health of the Australia-India bilateral relationship may be found elsewhere," writes Ian Hall of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

The Indian reluctance has confirmed a widely-held belief that China continues to influence the formation of various strategic alliances in the region.

New Delhi also has other reasons for dragging its feet as Australia cannot afford to antagonise its largest trading partner China. A former diplomat has gone a step further and has asserted that the antipodeans are living in a "Chinese world".

"One part is what the Australian public and politicians see, and perhaps understand," Stephen FitzGerald, Australia's first Ambassador to China explained. "This is China as state: Great Power, paramount power in Asia, asserting a sphere of influence in immediate neighbouring countries and seas, challenger to the US, economic giant, largest trading partner of Australia, New Zealand, ASEAN, Japan, Korea, and significant investor in all our economies," the former Ambassador said while delivering the 2017 Whitlam Oration in Sydney earlier this year.

The former Ambassador's oration was aptly titled "Managing Australian Foreign Policy in a Chinese World".

It's become increasingly hard for Australia to formulate a policy for China. There are serious questions around how Australia balances its alliance commitments against its economic dependence on China.

In light of the trading relations with China dominating her foreign policy to a great extent, it becomes harder for New Delhi to trust Australia in its commitment to the quadrilateral alliance. The fact that there has been a precedent of Australia bowing to the Chinese diktat and withdrawing from the Quadrilateral Alliance (in 2007) makes one understand why India has blocked Australia from Exercise Malabar.

Australian naval forces participated in Exercise Malabar in 2007. A strong diplomatic demarche from Beijing about the deepening Australia-India-Japan-US military ties had altered the alliance popularly known as the "Quad". Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had initiated the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) in 2006-07 during his first term.

Australia, which was led by a Chinese-speaking Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, backtracked from Exercise Malabar and also withdrew from the parallel quadrilateral strategic dialogue initiative soon after.

The efforts to revive the quadrilateral alliance have been initiated at a time when China is flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea.

The Indian reluctance to allow Australia to participate in Exercise Malabar is also being linked by some commentators to recent changes in Australian immigration laws. The move to scrap the so-called 457 visa (also known as work permits) programme is likely to affect skilled Indian workforce the most.

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