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India and the Philippines: Towards a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership

Mr Akash Sahu is a Research Analyst with the Centre for Southeast Asia and Oceania at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 01, 2022

    The External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar made his maiden visit to the Philippines from 13–15 February 2022.1 The visit came soon after Manila finalised a US$ 375 million BrahMos missile deal with New Delhi.2 This engagement in the defence industry sector is an important milestone in the evolving bilateral relationship. The strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific has become vulnerable today due to clashing territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing has often shown aggression through maritime incursions into ASEAN nations’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) including that of the Philippines.3 The anxiety in Manila is comprehended and shared by New Delhi, which has also been at odds with China over territorial disputes and violent clashes in the Himalayas. While shared security concerns bring the two democracies together at this time, their bilateral cooperation can potentially develop into a mutually beneficial strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

    Multifaceted Partnership

    In the recent meeting, the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. and Dr Jaishankar discussed wide-ranging cooperation in sectors of agriculture, tourism, science & technology, and infrastructure. Given the strong focus on security, the two leaders agreed to boost cooperation on defence and maritime security, and counter-terrorism. Emerging areas such as blue economy, renewable energy, cybersecurity and space were also on the agenda.4 Simplifying the visa policy to increase people-to-people contact and student exchange may be an important step in elevating bilateral ties.5 Dr Jaishankar also met the Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Finance Secretary Carlos Domineguez III, and Agriculture Secretary Dr William Dar during his visit.

    Regular high-level exchanges between the two countries have ensured frequent dialogue on a range of issues including regional security. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Philippines in 2017 and met his counterpart on sidelines of the ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit (EAS). Thereafter, President Rodrigo Duterte visited India in 2018 for the India–ASEAN Commemorative Summit and Republic Day celebrations.6 Indian naval warships have visited Filipino ports since 1998 and the two countries have also signed Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2006. India supported the Philippines’ candidacy for non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 2005, and the Philippines reciprocated by supporting India’s candidacy in 2011.7 India has invested in the Philippines in sectors like infrastructure, Information Technology, chemicals, automobiles, textiles and pharmaceuticals.8

    A Case for Comprehensive Strategic Partnership

    A Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) may be seen as the highest level of strategic alignment between two nations that recognise the need to cooperate closely on areas of defence and security, and share the rationale behind “profound cooperation in all sectors for their mutual benefits”.9 India has signed CSP with other Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam in 201610 and Indonesia in 2018, leading to improved interaction and increased congruence of regional security perspectives.11 In 2012, also the year of the Philippines’ stand-off with China near Scarborough Shoal, Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute Felix Chang advocated “building external defense architecture designed around mobile coastal defense batteries equipped with long-range anti-ship missiles and protected by an integrated air defense umbrella” for the Philippines.12

    The acquisition of BrahMos may be seen in the same light as Manila strives to boost its defence capabilities, particularly in the maritime arena, where it can “exert credible sea denial” over disputed waters of the South China Sea.13 With the ‘China’ threat on its exposed maritime boundaries, frequent natural calamities like typhoons and threat of terrorism in Mindanao region and other islands, coupled with limited coast defence capability,14 Manila’s deeper cooperation with New Delhi on this front can substantially improve its existing coastal defence capabilities through regular training of forces and development of infrastructure and surveillance capacities.  

    A CSP with the Philippines may allow India to increase its presence in the strategic region of South China Sea15 which lies at the centre of Southeast Asia, and is critical for passage of massive global cargo. India’s involvement in the region translates into a multilateral joint resilience to help prevent domination of any single large power, consequentially helping to maintain freedom of navigation and rules-based order in the region. A CSP, given mutual will to commit for a closer security relationship, can help reduce insecurities of nations in a volatile environment.16 The Philippines has expressed support for a CSP between India and ASEAN,17 reflective of its faith in India as a reliable security partner. New Delhi’s continued outreach to the region is also indicative of a strong commitment to maintaining the balance of power in the region with the help of like-minded partners.18 The Philippines’ National Security Policy focusing on the period 2017–22 observes India’s role among other powers in the EAS like South Korea and Australia as “crucial in contributing to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the East Asian region”, and notes that these powers will form “an integral part of the evolving regional security architecture”.19 A CSP between India and the Philippines would be fruitful in not only strengthening the bilateral relations between the two, but also in adding heft to the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific.

    Possible Challenges

    Even as India and the Philippines are inching closer on security and defence cooperation, Manila’s perception of how this deepening relationship may be viewed by other large powers in the region like China and the US, will be an important factor for its future course. While India and the US have aligned on the Indo-Pacific strategy of inclusive development and freedom of the oceans, China and India have not had the best of bilateral relations in the past few years. The Philippines has struggled with its China policy as it sought to reap economic benefits by not pursuing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal ruling of 2016 against China. But realising that it wasn’t working out too well, the Duterte administration swung back to its oldest alliance with the US.20

    The Philippines will have general elections in 2022 to elect its next president. Among the leading candidates, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is believed to be more China-friendly whereas the current vice-president Leni Robredo appears to have a tougher stance against China.21 However, regardless of who comes to power, the Philippines has seen during the Duterte regime that territorial issues in the South China Sea, and Beijing’s continued aggressive posture on the issue necessitates credible deterrence. Very recently, the Philippines had summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain “lingering presence” of Chinese naval vessels in Filipino waters, indicating that the problem of Chinese incursions will persist.22 It may be prudent for the Philippines in that case to forge essential defence relationships with regional powers of the Indo-Pacific. A CSP with India would mean the Philippines’ close defence engagement with all Quad partners as it already has similar strategic partnerships with the US, Japan and Australia.23


    A CSP can be expected to serve two broad objectives at the moment. First is, a renewed focus on defence modernisation, especially of the Philippines, since rejuvenation of local capacity may be critical in acceptance of and cooperation with new emerging security arrangements in the region,24 whether that is traditional in nature like the AUKUS, or non-traditional like supply chain resilience initiative. Second is that a CSP can be helpful in meaningful engagement of India and the Philippines at important multilateral ASEAN-led organisations like the EAS. As the global security environment changes rapidly due to ongoing hot wars such as in Ukraine, multi-polarity of the world order may be increasingly reinforced. Both India and the Philippines believe in maintaining multi-alignment, while also ensuring strategic autonomy to act in their national interest, and towards promoting peace and order in the Indo-Pacific.25 The next natural step may be to strengthen bilateral ties through a CSP, which may be examined by each government in light of their own foreign policy interests.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.