In a major development, the Philippines has accepted a proposal worth $374.9 million USD from the Indo-Russian consortium BrahMos Aerospace to supply a shore-based anti-ship missile system for its navy.
The missile in question, BrahMoS, has a 290-km range, which makes it ideal for Manila in the South China Sea region, where Beijing has built fortifications on many of the artificial islands it has constructed.
The BrahMos is a joint venture between the Russian firm NPO Mashinostroyeniya and India’s premier Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). New Delhi holds a 50.5% stake in the joint venture with an initial contribution of $126.25 million USD, while Moscow holds a 49.5% stake with an initial contribution of $123.75 million USD.
For India and the Philippines, it marks a leap of faith. Both nations have been mired in territorial conflicts with China.
In the case of the Philippines, the conflict has been in the maritime arena; in the case of India, the dispute has been along its land borders. The conflict between India and China turned violent in June 2020, when troops from the two sides clashed in the icy heights of the Himalayas, resulting in casualties on both sides for the first time in 45 years.
Meanwhile, the Philippines has had several run-ins with China in the last couple of years. Civilian vessels from the so-called Chinese “maritime militia” have been harassing fishing vessels from the Philippines as well as Philippine naval vessels.
China’s Encroachment Into Philippine Territory
In January 2013, the Philippines formally started arbitration proceedings against China’s claim on all territories within the so-called “nine-dash line” that includes Spratly Islands. Manila recognized the claims as “unlawful” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Finally, in July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague agreed.
The court pronounced its verdict that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the key waterway. It did not stop China from continuing to build artificial islands with military fortifications. Since then, the relations between the Philippines and China have swayed back and forth.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tried to improve relations with China, but without much success. China has aggressively used its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to gain a foothold in the infrastructure of countries like the Philippines, and those countries have sometimes been at the receiving end of Beijing’s territorial ambitions.
Recently, however, Manila has been vocal against Chinese belligerence in the region. Earlier in 2022, President Duterte’s legal counsel warned that Chinese moves in the region could damage ties and lead to “unwanted hostilities,” using some of the strongest words to come from the Duterte camp.
Why the Anti-ship Missile Deal is Important
This anti-ship missile deal is important since it may lead to similar calls by other Southeast Asian nations that have been at the receiving end of China’s intrusions. For example, countries like Vietnam have evinced an interest in the BrahMos missile.
In addition, this is a game-changer for Indo-Russian joint manufacturing in the field of defense and will mark the first major export of weapons systems by India.
As and when this contract is fulfilled, this will give a big fillip to Delhi’s “Make-in-India” initiative, which has been aggressively promoted by the Indian government. Already one of the world’s biggest arms importers, New Delhi signals that it is now aiming at becoming a major arms exporter.
It is also a major boost for India’s “Act-East Policy,” which aims to reinvigorate historical ties with countries in Southeast and East Asia. A deal of this kind will also bring much-needed revenue for its military-industrial complex.
Several challenges could develop before the deal becomes a reality.
First, the deal is surely going to rile China, which will try to put pressure on the Philippines through other means. Both the Philippines and India need to be careful about this and will have to work out a concerted strategy so that the deal does not fall through.
Second, the Philippines will have to take into consideration how some of its ASEAN partners respond to the developments. Some ASEAN members have been inching closer to Beijing, and they may also throw a spanner in the works.
Third, the fact that a Russian consortium is also involved in the BrahMoS manufacturing process means that the United States could also object. When India signed a deal for the S-400 air defense system from Russia, for example, Washington raised an objection.
Fourth, this could also become an issue in the upcoming Philippine presidential elections, which are slated for May 2022.
The Philippines is an important player for Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision. Tokyo has been sending help to Manila in the form of vessels and equipment for the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) through Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA). Among others, these include multi-role response vessels, high-speed small boats, coastal surveillance radars, and floating pontoons for high-speed boats.
Later in 2022, the PCG will take the delivery of two 97-meter vessels built by Japan’s Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. These are also being funded through Japanese ODA.
Japan has invested heavily in the infrastructure sector in the Philippines and provides an alternative to China’s much-vaunted BRI, which the Philippines is a part of.
The Road Ahead
For New Delhi, this will be a test case. As they say, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
India has the potential to become a major arms exporter in the years to come. Hence, it needs to make sure that this deal and delivery goes through on time.
Needless to say, countries like India and Japan have an important role in helping fellow democracies like the Philippines, both in the security and the economic domains.
Author: Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is a senior research fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. The views expressed here are personal. Twitter @rupakj.