When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last week amid a busy few days of regional summitry in Manila, one of the agreements that the two countries inked was on the defense side. Even though the extent of defense cooperation between the two sides still remains quite basic, their ongoing collaboration is still worth watching within the broader context of their bilateral ties as well as New Delhi’s attempt to boost relations with Southeast Asian states more generally.
Though India and the Philippines do have a defense relationship, collaboration still remains at quite a basic level relatively speaking, even when compared to some of New Delhi’s more advanced relationships in Southeast Asia. Previous cooperation has focused on subject areas such as disaster relief, transnational crimes, and counterterrorism, as well as on interactions including naval ship visits and military training and education. As both sides have been looking to further strengthen defense ties, they had set up a Joint Defense Cooperation Committee first held in 2012. There have also been previous attempts by both sides at pursuing closer ties in areas such as military equipment, though success has often proven elusive to date.
With a series of commemorative activities planned for the 25th anniversary of India’s partnership with ASEAN this year and the Philippines holding the annually rotating ASEAN chair, it is no surprise that the bilateral relationship has gotten more attention of late. India under Modi has been looking to boost ties with Southeast Asian states as part of its so-called ‘Act East’ policy. For instance, just last month, as I noted in these pages, two Indian Navy warships made a goodwill visit to the Philippines as part of a broader deployment to East and Southeast Asia covering 12 ports as part of the 25th anniversary commemoration (See: “India Warships on Philippines Voyage Amid ASEAN Anniversary”).
Last week, during Modi’s first-ever visit to the Philippines as prime minister – which Indian officials were keen to emphasize was the first by an Indian premier in nearly four decades – he held a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte. This was also the first official meeting between the two leaders, even though they have interacted previously including in the last round of regional summitry in Laos.
While the visit was admittedly eclipsed by other bilateral engagements and Indian officials indicated that the conversation focused more on economic developments, the security dimension of ties nonetheless featured in the interaction as well. Most notably, both sides inked a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on defense cooperation and logistics, which was one of four agreements reached (the others covered agriculture, foreign services, and micro small and medium enterprises).
Few details were disclosed about the agreement and what was discussed on the defense side. But Lorenzana clarified at a press briefing that the MOU itself had focused mostly on more basic aspects of defense ties such as visits and exchanges. He also added that India could supply the Philippines with some kinds of defense equipment as part of the Southeast Asian state’s ongoing modernization program, noting New Delhi’s defense industry and previous cooperation mulled by both sides.
To be sure, Lorenzana was not specific on what exact form this collaboration would take. The devil is often in the details with such forms of interaction, as the two sides as found previously when either expressions of interest have not progressed beyond the discussion stage or Indian companies have unsuccessfully bid on specific projects. Still, as India looks to boost its ties with the Philippines and Southeast Asia more broadly, the defense realm of India-Philippines ties is still worth watching.