Despite the stark difference in size and population, on paper India and the Philippines would appear to make natural partners. They are both noisy Indo-Pacific democracies current ruled by controversial but popular leaders. The Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States while India is one of America’s closest strategic partners. Manila and Delhi are both engaged in active territorial disputes with Beijing, and both are (mostly) invested in the rules-based order. In practice, however, strategic interactions between Delhi and Manila have traditionally been quite shallow.
That’s true of many of India’s relationships in East and Southeast Asia, though it’s gradually changing under a reinvigorated “Act East” policy launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. In recent years Delhi has strengthened ties with traditional partners like Japan, Vietnam, and Singapore while conducting new forms of outreach to Indonesia, South Korea, and Australia. Is India looking to add the Philippines to the list? In 2019, there were two signals that suggest it might.
First, from May 2-8, 2019, the navies of the Philippines and India joined those from the United States and Japan in a quadrilateral joint sail through the contested South China Sea. India dispatched a destroyer and tanker for the exercise while the Philippines sent a patrol vessel. The ships, transiting from South Korea to Singapore, engaged in “formation exercises, communication drills, passenger transfers, and [a] leadership exchange.” The exercise overlapped with a U.S. freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea challenging illegal Chinese claims there. While it was a low-level exercise from a technical standpoint, India’s participation carried geopolitical significance. Delhi has traditionally been reticent to join multi-participant naval exercises that could be interpreted as provocative toward China, particularly in contested seas.
Second, in December 2019, Filipino Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that the Philippines was interested in purchasing from India two batteries of Brahmos missiles, an advanced cruise missile co-developed by Indian and Russian defense firms. Lorenzana suggested a contract would be forthcoming in 2020, “possibly on the first or second quarter,” saying the missile would be “the first Philippine weaponry with deterrent capability.” It would also mark the first Brahmos export deal for the Indian government, which has been unsuccessful in courting buyers, despite a decade of on-again-off-again talks with Vietnam.
Manila and Delhi: The Backstory
I contributed to a study published earlier this year by the RAND Corporation, “The Thickening Web of Asian Security Cooperation: Deepening Defense Ties Among U.S. Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific.” It examined India’s defense and strategic ties with several East and Southeast Asian powers, including Japan, Australia, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea, and Indonesia. One of the early takeaways: India’s ties with the Philippines were among the least developed in the region. Indeed, India has formed “Strategic Partnerships” of varying character with all capitals in the study; the Philippines was the only exception.
Despite establishing diplomatic relations in November 1949 and signing a Treaty of Friendship in July 1952, relations between India and the Philippines were insubstantial through much of the 20th century. As my co-author, Greg Poling, wrote in the RAND study:
India historically has not played much role in Philippine strategic thinking, foreign policy, economics, or security cooperation. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, religious and cultural linkages, shared British colonial legacies, and a large Indian diaspora helped maintain ties to the subcontinent throughout the twentieth century, even as New Delhi lacked an effective diplomatic or economic presence in the region. But none of those are major factors in Philippine society.
The pace of high-level political and defense exchanges did begin to increase in the 1990s following the launch of India’s “Look East” policy, with head-of-state exchanges in 1991, 1997, 2006, and 2007. Leaders from both countries also periodically met on the sidelines of major regional gatherings, including in 2007, 2012, and 2014.
During a 2006 meeting between the two countries’ presidents, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Defense and Security Cooperation and established several high-level commissions and dialogues. By the mid-2010s the two had established a Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation, a Joint Committee on Defense Cooperation, a new foreign policy consultations and security dialogue, and a joint working group on counterterrorism. At a meeting of the joint defense committee in March 2017, the two discussed “significant regional security concerns,” including tensions in South China Sea and Indian Ocean piracy.
India and the Philippines have also begun holding regular intelligence exchange meetings on a range of sensitive issues. India trains Filipino foreign service officers at its Foreign Service Institute, and the two have begun conducting military training exchanges, including India hosting a 34-member Filipino military delegation for a week-long training course in 2016. The first exchange among their respective National Defense Colleges was conducted in India in 2013 and a delegation from the Indian College of Defense Management visited the Philippines the same year. Indian warships have also become frequent visitors to the Philippines on their regular deployments to the South China Sea.
In November 2017, the two countries witnessed a breakthrough when Modi became the first Indian leader to visit the Philippines in 36 years. In Manila, Modi attended the ASEAN and East Asian Summits and met with President Rodrigo Duterte, where the two signed an agreement to boost cooperation in defense and logistics. Two months later, Duterte was welcomed in Delhi for Republic Day celebrations along with the leaders of other ASEAN member states. The Filipino defense secretary traveled to Delhi in March 2018, and the Philippines participated in India’s annual Defense Expo the following month.
Despite this progress, and expressed interest from both sides, the two have found little success to date in boosting cooperation in defense sales or co-production. This is a least partly a product of broader problems afflicting India’s defense export industry and partly a product of the Philippines’ underdeveloped military capabilities, among the weakest in the region.
Notably, in 2015 an Indian firm bid on a $400 million contract to provide two light frigates for the Philippine Navy. India’s state-owned, Kolkata-based Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) reportedly submitted the most competitive bid but “failed to meet financial requirements in post-qualification assessments by the Philippine Navy.” Specifically, the Philippine Navy insisted on paying in full on delivery of the warships and assessed GRSE “did not have adequate funds available” to construct the vessels without supporting payments. India’s defense ministry requested diplomatic intervention, but the deal failed to materialize.
Duterte Courts Xi
Once second only to Vietnam in raising alarm about Chinese activities in the South China Sea, Manila has assumed a much more submissive demeanor toward Beijing since firebrand Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in 2016.
Prior to Duterte’s victory, India appeared to be drifting closer to the Philippines. In 2015, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made an unusual reference to the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea” in a joint statement with her Filipino counterpart. A year later, India supported an UNCLOS Arbital Tribunal ruling that found in favor of the Philippines and invalidated many of China’s claims in the South China Sea. However, Duterte’s high-profile charm offensive toward Beijing — which included largely abandoning the Tribunal award — may have limited the room for strategic convergence with India on broader geopolitical questions.
Duterte, who has casually joked about raping women and called each of President Obama, the Pope, and God “son of a bitch” on different occasions, has openly courted Chinese President Xi Jinping since assuming office. In February 2019 Duterte explained that Xi was a “man of honor” while quipping the Philippines was “already a province…of China. The nearest [province] is Fujian.”
Notably, Duterte’s more benevolent views of Beijing are not shared by the Filipino public or military establishment. In a January 2019 Pulse Asia survey, 84 percent of Filipinos surveyed expressed trust in the United States; only 39 percent felt China was trustworthy. In a December 2019 Pew survey, 64 percent felt the United States could be relied upon as a dependable ally. Only 9 percent said the same for China while 62 percent saw it as the greatest threat to their country.
Nor has Duterte’s courtship of China delivered the benefits he anticipated. When the Filipino president visited Beijing in 2016, he signed 27 deals with Xi, including $24 billion in pledged Chinese investments. An assessment two years later found “barely any projects have materialized, prompting deep concerns that President Rodrigo Duterte has undermined the country’s sovereignty with little to show in return.” By one count, during Duterte’s first year in office, U.S. ($160 million) and Japanese ($600 million) investments in the Philippines dwarfed those of China ($31 million).
Meanwhile, provocative Chinese maritime activities in the Philippines maritime space have only increased. As one Filipino analyst summarized:
China now patrols Philippine seas and air space. Its coast guard controls entry into and the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal, 120 miles off Luzon. Paramilitary fleets increasingly are fishing in the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Warships venture close to Zambales and Mindoro in the West Philippine Sea. Chinese aircraft regularly confront Philippine flights to Pag-asa Island in Palawan’s Kalayaan Island Group. Maritime research vessels are exploring the Philippine western seabed as well as Benham Rise off Cagayan, and Samar and Surigao in the east. All these are in breach of international law.
Even senior figures in the Duterte administration have begun to voice their dissatisfaction. In April 2019, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin lamented: “What is disappointing is that despite our friendliness and uninterrupted friendship, China continually embarrasses our government by swarming all over OUR exclusive economic zone.” The same month Manila announced it would be blocking Chinese firms from bidding on purchasing the Philippines largest shipyard at Subic Bay over national security concerns.
Despite this pushback, Manila’s more China-friendly posture is unlikely to change so long as Rodrigo Duterte remains president. On the other hand, it’s possible that whoever succeeds him in 2022 will adopt a more traditional foreign policy posture less skeptical of the United States, more apprehensive about China, and potentially more enthusiastic about strengthening cooperation with India. In the meantime, more joint naval drills and an arms deal would provide India a much-needed win in the region and the Philippines a boost to its lagging military capabilities.
Jeff M. Smith is a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.