The Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique A Manalo recently made a four-day visit to India. It shows that the relations between the two countries have been going from strength to strength. During this visit, the Indian External Affairs Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Mr Manalo co-chaired the fifth meeting of the India-Philippines joint commission on bilateral cooperation.
One of the biggest outcomes of the bilateral talks was the Joint Statement issued during this visit, which notes:
EAM [External Affairs Minister of India] and SFA [Secretary of Foreign Affairs of The Philippines] held wide-ranging and substantive discussions on regional and international issues of mutual concern. They underlined the need for peaceful settlement of disputes and for adherence to international law, especially the UNCLOS [UN Convention on the Law of the Sea] and the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea in this regard.
This is significant as, in the past, India has not expressly referred to the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea. In response to the 2016 ruling earlier, India had been much more guarded and had called on all parties to respect the UNCLOS. However, since then, India's relations with China have deteriorated. In the summer of 2020, Chinese and Indian troops fought each other in fatal clashes following incursions by the Chinese side.
Why is the Philippines Important for India?
The Philippines is an important part of India's "Act-East Policy." It aims at reinvigorating its historical ties with Southeast Asia and East Asia. This policy has been continued by successive Indian governments ever since it was launched in the early 1990s in the aftermath of India's balance of payments crisis.
Indian PM Narendra Modi in his address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018 noted that "the Indian Ocean has shaped much of India's history. It now holds the key to our future. The ocean carries 90% of India's trade and our energy sources. It is also the lifeline of global commerce."
In January 2018, all the ASEAN heads of state were Chief Guests at India's Republic Day celebrations. Recently, India gifted an active-duty missile corvette to Vietnam. In addition, it has been conducting joint exercises with many countries in the region as part of its outreach. Besides, India is trying to become an exporter of defense equipment as opposed to being the world's biggest arms importer, and the Southeast Asian nations represent an attractive market.
Areas of Cooperation
A major milestone in the ties between India and the Philippines has been the decision of the Philippines government to buy the BrahMos missiles which have been jointly developed by India and Russia. These missiles will be a game-changer for the Philippines' defense forces. They will allow the Philippines armed forces to use lethal force against Chinese naval forces if required. In January 2022, a contract was signed worth $374.9 million USD for India to supply the BrahMos missile system.
The Philippines and India share common interests in the Indo-Pacific as they stand up to an aggressive China. The earlier government of President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila had close ties with Beijing, but now things are beginning to look different.
In addition, they have common interests with countries like the United States in the region. India is a part of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) along with countries like Japan, Australia, and the US.
Areas of Concern
However, there are still some areas where the two countries have divergences.
One of them is the China-led BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) which the Philippines has joined, while India has not. It is also worth noting that many of the projects as part of the BRI have run aground in the Philippines. India along with countries like Japan and the United States have raised doubts about China's model of infrastructure building.
In addition, the Philippines has joined the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) while India has not. In addition, in the past, the Philippines has hosted US bases on its soil. But this has never been the case with India. Besides, the dispute between the Philippines and China is a maritime dispute while the one between India and China is a land dispute.
Japan and the Philippines
Japan has close ties with the Philippines. Earlier this year, the Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr met with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida. President Marcos visited Japan, where the leaders signed an agreement that will see Japanese soldiers join natural and humanitarian disaster response training exercises in the Philippines. This could be a precursor towards broader defense cooperation.
Earlier last month, Japanese, US, and Philippine coast guards held a joint drill in the South China Sea off the Bataan Peninsula west of Manila. This kicked off their first trilateral maritime exercises. In addition, Japan has been at the receiving end of China's territorial aggression with Beijing laying claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands.
What Lies Ahead?
India is a very important country for the Philippines as currently, India is the chair of the G20. It is also the fifth-biggest economy and has the biggest population in the world.
The Philippines will be an important factor in the fight against Chinese aggression. It has been at the forefront of China's island seizure activities in the region and the use of maritime militia.
Meanwhile, the US has deep interests in the Indo-Pacific. It even renamed the Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. This testifies to the close and deep US involvement in the region. There is no denying that countries like India, the Philippines, Japan, the United States, and Australia will have to take the lead in ensuring a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. And the Philippines' Secretary for Foreign Affairs' visit to India was the right step in this direction.
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Author: Dr Rupakjyoti Borah
Dr Borah is a Senior Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. The views expressed here are personal.