Amid the shifts taking place in the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical landscape, a promising development in the form of a deepening and broadening maritime security partnership between the Philippines and India is taking place.
This was highlighted by the Indian Ambassador to the Philippines Shambhu Kumaran on September 1, when he emphasized that given the shared concerns and interests of the two countries in the region’s maritime domain, “India would like to expand the navy engagement between New Delhi and Manila.” Kumaran’s statement reflects a steady progression in the security ties between India and the Philippines over the past few years.
Being democratic Indo-Pacific countries with security and economic interests that are largely dependent on the stability of the sea, the Philippines and India prioritize a peaceful, free, inclusive, and rules-based maritime domain. Consequently, along with the emergence of non-traditional security threats such as piracy, transnational terrorism, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, China’s expansive territorial claims and growing assertiveness at sea continue to not only provoke the state of commerce and peace in the Indo-Pacific but also the sovereignty and sovereign rights of its neighbors. The Philippines and India have often been at the receiving end of such belligerence. Therefore, with shared concerns, common goals, and no overlapping conflict of interests, it is only natural that Manila and New Delhi expand their deepening defense cooperation towards their maritime security.
While India has traditionally taken a more cautious position toward the South China Sea due to its unwillingness to interfere in the domestic affairs of its eastern neighbors, recent trends have illustrated the growing interdependence between the security of the Western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.
Through the Act East Policy of 2014, New Delhi illustrated its commitment to playing a larger and more proactive role as a responsible security partner in Southeast Asia. Since then, it has become more vocal about the plight of its Southeast Asian neighbors vis-à-vis China’s growing belligerence and adventurism in the disputed maritime territory. The initial years of the Act East policy witnessed significant advancements in maritime security cooperation between India and countries like Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar. In the context of the Philippines, the bilateral momentum began to grow after 2016 with Manila seeking to enhance its security relations with like-minded non-traditional partners, such as India, in the maritime domain.
From regular high-level visits to New Delhi and the purchase of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile system to the participation in bilateral and multilateral maritime exercises with India in the South China Sea, Manila showed its willingness to incorporate India in its security calculations in areas that were once only attributed to traditional partners.
Similarly, India’s support for the Philippines’ interests and position in the South China Sea also witnessed notable developments. In 2014, former Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj did not hesitate to use the term West Philippine Sea to emphasize the legitimate interests of the Philippines vis-à-vis its exclusive economic zone. In 2016, New Delhi reiterated support for the Philippines’ position in the disputed sea, by stating that “India has noted the Award Arbitral Tribunal.”
During the 15th East Asia Summit in November 2020, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also emphasized how Chinese actions in the South China Sea continued to challenge the level of trust in the ongoing code of conduct negotiations. Additionally, the Indian foreign minister stressed that such negotiations must always reflect the principles and guidelines of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In the same year, New Delhi emphasized how the South China Sea is part of the global commons, and that international relations must be based on international law.
Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Manila has demonstrated its intent to sustain and even enhance the function of the Philippines-India security partnership. New Delhi has positively reciprocated such interest.
During his three-day official visit to New Delhi in June, the Philippine Secretary for Foreign Affairs Enrique A. Manalo highlighted Manila’s desire to forge “very robust” defense ties with India. During his participation in the fifth meeting of the Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation with his Indian counterpart, both officials noted the need for an “expanding scope of India-Philippines ties to further strengthen the bilateral relationship.” Additionally, New Delhi called for the peaceful settlement of disputes and the need to adhere to international law, especially the UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea. Furthermore, India also expressed its support in contributing towards the Philippines’ efforts to enhance its maritime security capabilities by not only reiterating its defense line of credit offer but also indicating the need to explore more areas for maritime cooperation.
To operationalize the discussions that took place between the foreign ministers, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Indian Coast Guard. (ICG) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on enhanced maritime cooperation in August. The agreement represents an important step in enhancing information to address a plethora of traditional and non-traditional security threats.
Additionally, given that both countries have experienced the impacts of China’s gray zone activities, the sharing of intelligence, information, and best practices will be vital as Beijing often conducts its gray zone maneuvers against a country when it is isolated. Therefore, having as much reliable information from trusted partners is undeniably crucial. While joint coast guard drills were conducted by both countries in 2017, the need for both agencies to maintain consistent coordination to improve both operational and symbolic elements of their maritime cooperation will be important.
Hence, such an agreement can serve as an important stepping-stone for this goal. Additionally, the MoU also has the potential to pave a path toward a broader maritime security partnership framework for both democratic countries in the near future. In fact, it was also reported that the PCG is looking into a possible acquisition of India’s indigenously built helicopters and warships, which are more affordable, but equally formidable in terms of operation. For instance, the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Mk-III uses one of the most modern surveillance radars, which can easily detect and identify ships and boats up to a range of 120 nautical miles. Additionally, India has also offered training in cyber defense.
The Philippines and India are natural security partners for all the right reasons. India does not have any axe to grind in the region and presents itself as a much-needed alternative source of development and security amid the polarizing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, the Philippines will also benefit from continuously strengthening its security partnership with New Delhi, especially, since India also shares close and robust strategic partnerships with the United States, Japan, and Australia.
Therefore, the levels of convergence and geopolitical compatibility are undoubtedly present. While the political will to maximize the potential of the Philippines-India partnership in the beginning of the 21st century was delayed, it is safe to assume that the reinvigorated momentum will sustain. However, the need for Manila and New Delhi to maintain constant engagement will be pivotal at a time when the future of Indo-Pacific geopolitics remains uncertain.