On the morning of Wednesday, October 23, 2019, two Indian ships docked at the Port of Manila in a gesture of goodwill. The INS Sahyadri and INS Kiltan’s visit to Pier 15 of the Philippines’ capital city went beyond mere symbolism, though. The arrival of the naval vessels was a statement on the fledgeling strategic relationship between India and the Philippines, both bilaterally and in a broader, regional context.
Bilateral strategic relations between India and the Philippines have seen a resurgence in recent years. In February 2006, the two nations forged an agreement on defence cooperation, which provides a legal framework for defence cooperation while “elevating bilateral relations to a more strategic level.” The agreement aims to bolster ties “thorough exchange of military training expertise and information; exchange of military instructors/observers; exchange of visits of military aircraft and military naval vessels; exchange of information that is mutually beneficial, and other spheres of defence cooperation.” By the mid-2010s, the two countries had established joint commissions on bilateral and defence cooperation, new foreign policy consultations and security dialogue, and a joint working group on counterterrorism. They have also discussed growing security concerns in the South China Sea.
In November 2017, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during the ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Manila. Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the country since Indira Gandhi in 1981. One of four Memorandums of Understanding signed by both countries was on Defense Industry and Logistics Cooperation. The MoU “provides a framework for strengthening cooperation in logistics support and services and in the development, production and procurement of defence materials.”
During Indian President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to the Philippines in October 2019, an MoU between the Philippine Coast Guard and Indian Navy on Sharing of White Shipping Information was signed. The MoU focuses on facilitating the sharing of information on non-military and non-governmental shipping vessels between the two countries. In a joint statement with President Kovind, President Duterte acknowledged India’s role in the Philippines’ defence capability upgrade. In their meeting, the two leaders also expressed willingness to cooperate on combating terrorism and transboundary crimes and protecting maritime domains.
Improving India-Philippines’ bilateral strategic relations could be viewed in the broader regional context of the Modi government’s Act East Policy. Seen as a practical upgrade of the erstwhile Look East Policy, Act East is India’s attempt at establishing improved ties with Indo-Pacific countries. It “evolved naturally” from the Look East Policy as a result of China’s rise, inadequacies in the regional security order in the region, and the growth in India’s own profile and capacity. The focus of the policy, at least based on India’s recent posturing, is Southeast Asia, with the Philippines surely not on the backseat.
The balance of power in Southeast Asia is clearly in India’s vital strategic interests. In the past decade, China has become more assertive in claiming contested island chains in the South China Sea, even to the point of refusing to accept a ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague that ruled it had violated the sovereignty of the Philippines by interfering with fishing activities and building artificial islands in the area. An unchecked China in the Asia-Pacific would leave India at a strategic disadvantage in the region. India seems to recognize the urgency of affairs in Southeast Asia, as manifested by Prime Minister Modi’s feting of the region’s 10 leaders, including President Duterte, on his country’s celebration of Republic Day in 2018.
The Philippines, for its part, has shown it is willing to engage with India despite its proclivity and submissiveness towards China. Two recent developments highlight this. First, in May 2019, it sent a patrol vessel to join the navies of India, Japan, and the United States in a quadrilateral joint sail through the South China Sea, which coincided with a U.S. freedom of navigation operation challenging Chinese claims in the area. While viewed as a low-level exercise, it remains significant in that India has always been cautious of actions that could anger Beijing in the past. Second, the Philippines’s defence secretary announced his country’s intention of purchasing two batteries of BrahMos missiles, a medium-range cruise missile co-designed by Indian and Russian companies. The deal, according to him, is set to be signed off on in the first half of 2020.
India and the Philippines have had formal diplomatic relations since 1949. Yet, their relationship up until these latest developments has been cordial at best. On the one hand, it would be stubborn not to usher in this era as a new phase in the strategic relations between the two countries. On the other hand, in what form these relations would take moving forward is anyone’s guess. What is clear, though, is that both India and the Philippines are past being merely warm and friendly to one another.