New Delhi: India has rejected an Australian request to take part in joint naval exercises with the United States and Japan for fear of antagonising China, which has warned against expanding the drills, navy officials and diplomats say.
Australia formally wrote to the Indian defence ministry in January asking if it could send naval ships to join the July wargames as an observer, in what military experts saw as a step toward eventual full participation.
Four officials from India, Australia and Japan told Reuters India blocked the proposal and suggested that Canberra send officers to watch the exercises in the Bay of Bengal from the decks of the three participating countries’ warships, instead.
New Delhi is worried that China will step up activities in the Indian Ocean where it is building infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, feeding India’s anxiety about being encircled, Indian military sources and diplomats said.
New Delhi’s ties with Beijing have soured in recent years over a territorial dispute in the Himalayas and China’s military support of Pakistan. China has also been concerned that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s avowedly nationalistgovernment has stepped up public engagement of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who lives in exile in India.
An Indian defence ministry spokesman confirmed there had been a request from Australia for observer status in the July exercises, but he said he was not in a position to provide any details of the Indian response.
Both the United States and Japan supported the idea of involving Australia, seeing it as a natural partner in the effort to balance China’s growing might, the four officials said.
A spokesman for Australia’s Minister of Defence Marise Payne refused to comment on the Malabar exercises.
But one Australian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was increasingly unlikely Canberra would join the drills although it was keen to do so.