India Philippines Strategic Partnership expands – How it will impact expansionist China?

India and the Philippines held the 4th meeting of the Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation on November 6. This meeting was co-chaired by Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, and Secretary of the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, Teodoro Locsin Jr. According to an Indian readout, “they agreed to further strengthen defence engagement and maritime cooperation between the two countries, especially in military training and education, capacity building, regular good-will visits, and procurement of defence equipment.”

China has significantly increased its military capabilities and coercive measures in Southeast Asia, particularly in the disputed South China Sea where Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines also have territorial claims. China’s expansive claims coupled with its growing assertion and disdain for a rules-based order leave little room for negotiation between it and the other claimants.

Among them, the Philippines has been seen to pass the buck rather than address the asymmetric nature of its relations with China. However, as India-Philippines strategic relations continue to grow under the Act East Policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Manila may get just the partnership it needs to slowly disentangle from China’s increasing influence.

Evidence suggests that the Philippines seems to be applying a neutral strategy vis-à-vis China and the United States amidst a brewing power competition in the greater East Asian region. Manila is seen to walk a fine line between forging closer security relations with the US while maintaining rosy economic relations with China. Despite being aware that China’s rise is a serious concern towards its national and strategic interest, as highlighted in the country’s National Security Policy 2017-2022, the Philippines finds it difficult to openly work with the US. This dilemma has significantly restrained its ability to freely manoeuvre its foreign policy.

Evidence suggests that the Philippines seems to be applying a neutral strategy vis-à-vis China and the United States amidst a brewing power competition in the greater East Asian region

However, one promising development centres on the Philippines’ growing strategic relations with India. Both states have expressed the significance and vitality of the India-Philippines strategic partnership. In fact, Philippine Navy chief, Rear Admiral Giovanni Carlo J. Bacordo, in a letter to Indian Navy chief, Admiral Karambir Singh, wrote, “We hope to expand this relationship as we seek better ways to make our seas safer and more secure for everyone.” This goes to show that the Philippines is more than willing to openly work with India in the strategic and security domains.

In a telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Modi and President Duterte, both leaders shared satisfaction in the bilateral relationship between the two states, including defence cooperation, with Prime Minister Modi highlighting how India sees the Philippines as a “vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific region. The Philippines also expressed similar sentiments.

Moreover, there are also talks between the two states for the purchase of defence platforms from India including the BrahMos land-based supersonic missile system, according to India’s former ambassador to the Philippines Jaideep Mazumdar. He stated that “There are discussions going on a range of weapons systems between India and the Philippines. Once travel becomes possible, the joint committee that looks at defence logistics will meet and discuss these things.”

At the economic level, a significant push has also been made with the commencement of negotiations on a new bilateral investment treaty. The first round of the talks was held virtually last week, involving officials from India’s Department of Economic Affairs and Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry.

India-Philippines bilateral relations are now reaching new heights in the political, defence, and economic domains. The continuous elevation of this partnership will have strong and positive implications for the Philippines’ strategic policy vis-à-vis China increasing assertion in the region.

India-Philippines bilateral relations are now reaching new heights in the political, defence, and economic domains. The continuous elevation of this partnership will have strong and positive implications for the Philippines’ strategic policy vis-à-vis China increasing assertion in the region.

There are also several lessons that can be learned from India’s engagement with China that can serve the interest of the Philippines. India is also victim to the assertive actions of China along its border. Both India and the Philippines are also geographical neighbours of China. In addition, both states are also economically interdependent with Beijing up to a high degree. However, India has shown that it can and should stand-up to China when its national interests are being compromised.

New Delhi’s actions have shown that standing-up to Beijing does not mean that a full-scale war or cutting ties serve as the only options. India has maintained open communications with China and continues to engage with it on several levels; however, it has consistently emphasised and showed that its territorial integrity and strategic interests are uncompromisable.

Both India and the Philippines adhere to the same democratic principles and ideals vis-à-vis maintaining a rules-based international order. This aspect of bilateral relations is essential given that both states converge on long-term goals. This growing bilateral partnership will provide both India and the Philippines with a platform to not only secure their strategic interests but also maintain a truly rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.

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