Opinion: India, Philippines Are Growing Closer Over A 'Common Cause' - China

With a change in leadership from the China-leaning Rodrigo Duterte to Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who believes in forging closer ties with the US, the timing is just right for India to act.

Apr 29, 2024 - 14:30
Opinion: India, Philippines Are Growing Closer Over A 'Common Cause' - China
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India is all set to send its first-ever defence attaché to the Philippines. The military attaché is expected to take charge in about three to four months after the final clearance from the Defence Minister's office. A defence or military attaché is part of the diplomatic establishment in the host country and is tasked with tracking military developments in the region. According to a source, the move is in sync with India's geostrategic and geo-economic efforts to shape a narrative in the Indo-Pacific.

China's growing aggression in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea, has been a matter of concern for the region, especially for an ASEAN country like the Philippines. China claims most of the South China Sea and uses what it calls the 'nine-dash line' to assert its control over the fish-rich Scarborough Shoal, as well as the Second Thomas Shoal, which has become another point of friction between Manila and Beijing.

Read | Watch: BrahMos Cruise Missile Delivered To Philippines - A 1st For India

The Significance Of The Defence Attaché

In 2016, even though the Philippines won the arbitration proceedings against China, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague stating that Beijing's claims in the South China Sea had no basis under international law, China rejected the verdict. 

The defence attaché's role assumes greater significance in the current times as tensions between the Philippines and China rise. The former has accused Beijing of repeated military provocations in the South China Sea over the last few months. On April 13, the Chinese coast guard blocked a Philippine maritime research vessel and its escort just 35 nautical miles from the coast of the island nation. They are also accused of firing water cannons.

China has also been stopping the Philippines' resupply to the Second Thomas Shoal. In the last two resupply missions, Philippine boats were damaged and a few crew members were injured. Calling these attacks illegal, coercive, aggressive, and dangerous, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has stated that his country could take retaliatory measures.

The BrahMos Delivery

Amidst the friction over the provocations, India made the first delivery of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile to the Philippines this month. The source said the delivery was just the beginning of increased defence and military cooperation between the two nations. 

The BrahMos delivery came under a $375-million deal New Delhi and Manila had signed in 2022. Significantly, the export of the missile, a result of a joint venture between India's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia's NPO Mashinostroyeniya, saw slow progress initially due to concerns over United States' CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) rules.

Read | US, Japan And Philippines Hold First Trilateral Summit, "Many More" To Come

Last month, India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was in Manila, where he said India supports upholding the Philippines' sovereignty. His Philippine counterpart, Enrique Manalo, added that the two countries were exploring ways to maintain a free and peaceful Indo-Pacific. India's support for Manila in the face of threats from China may not be new, but the actions now are far more explicit. In 2015, when the Philippines was engaged in the arbitration process with China in The Hague, the then External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, had backed Manila as the South China Sea was referred to as the "West Philippine Sea" in a joint statement.

India's Own Friction With China

Meanwhile, as the Philippines continues to manage a maritime territorial dispute with Beijing, the friction between India and China in Eastern Ladakh is set to enter its fifth year in May. The tensions have virtually led to the stalling of the boundary talks involving special representatives from the two countries. 

China, thus, is a clear 'common cause' as India and the Philippines step up their military engagement. With a change in leadership from the China-leaning Rodrigo Duterte to Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who believes in forging closer ties with the US, the timing is also just right for India to act.

A Focus Long Due

Notably, India had a 'Look East' policy since 1991, which was later renamed "Act East" in 2014. Both policies were a diplomatic effort to develop political, economic, and security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries. Despite that, the engagement with the Philippines has been rather underwhelming. But things seem to be improving now. 

At the ASEAN level, the defence mechanism includes a Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM)-Plus, which India participates in. The ADMM is the highest defence consultative and cooperative mechanism in the grouping. In November last year, India's Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, attended the 10th ADMM-Plus meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia. He expressed India's "commitment to freedom of navigation, overflight, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the international waters in accordance with international laws, including United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982". 

(Maha Siddiqui is a journalist who has extensively reported on public policy and global affairs.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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