Despite the limited interaction between the two parts of Manila and New Delhi several similarities. While the Philippines is a treaty ally with the United States under the Mutual Defense Treaty (1951), India is a close strategic partner for the country. Both are engaged in active territorial disputes with China and are committed to a rules-based system.
In May 2022, Ferdinand Marcos Jr (also known as Bongbong Marcos) won a direct majority in the presidential election in the Philippines. Son and bearer of the name of the former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Marcos Jr. paved the way for the country’s most infamous political dynasty’s shocking return to power.
It’s no secret that Marcos Jr Beijing-friendly president, given the political vote with Rodrigo Duterte, the outgoing president, who has been unusually vocal about his anti-Washington and pro-China stance. But Marcos Jr. is a president who perhaps plays the game more strategically than his predecessor. Marcos is inspired by his father’s policy of maintaining a strong security alliance with Washington. Although he is politically in line with Duterte, who tried to turn away from the US and towards China, Marcos will seek a balancing act.
Both Manila and New Delhi are in an uncertain position in the midst of this great power competition. The dichotomy of establishing closer security relations with the United States while maintaining good relations with China limits their foreign policy. The latter is necessary for the economic development of the Philippines, while the former is necessary to maintain its sovereignty and security in relation to Beijing’s growing assertion in the region.
The strategic partnership between the Philippines and India is important for both states. In a letter to the then Indian Navy Commander, Admiral Karambir Singh in 2020, Philippine Navy Commander Giovanni Carlo J. Bacordo wrote: “We hope to expand this relationship as we seek better ways to make our garden safer and more secure for all.” This shows the willingness of the Philippines to work with India in the strategic and security field. prime minister Narendra Modi had also expressed India’s consideration for the Philippines as an “important partner” in the Indo-Pacific region.
Relations between the two nations have grown steadily. Indian cooperation with Southeast Asian states such as the Philippines has been significantly improved as a result of the Act East Policy, Modi’s flagship program. Former Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had referred to the South China Sea as the “Western Philippine Sea” in a joint statement with her Philippine counterpart in 2015. Before Duterte’s victory in 2016, India moved closer to the Philippines in terms of strategic and security domain. In fact, India was very supportive of the Philippines following the decision of the UNCLOS Arbitration Court, which annulled China’s numerous claims in the South China Sea. However, Duterte’s relentless efforts to convict Beijing, which even included abandoning the court’s ruling, made it difficult for India to find areas of strategic convergence with the island nation.
A change in management in Manila leads to the possibility of greater convergence between the two nations, India and the Philippines. It is predicted that a Filipino under Marcos Jr. will continue to engage with China, in line with Duterte’s pro-China policy, but at the same time will engage and even strengthen closer ties with the United States to ensure the sovereignty of the Philippines in the midst of an aggressively rising China. Thus, being in a similar situation in the Indo-Pacific security architecture will make India and the Philippines natural, strategic partners.
GREATER STRATEGIC CONVERGENCE
After Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines in 2016, China saw an opportunity to pull the country away from Washington and into its sphere of influence. President Duterte’s open love for Beijing has markedly narrowed the areas of cooperation between nations in the Indo-Pacific region. However, it would be too early to assume that Manila has completely closed its doors to newer, better opportunities.
It is expected that under the regime of Marcos Jr., the Philippines will strive for a peaceful and rule-based international system that can be an important path for the growth and development of their country. But the challenge for Manila is to find a strategic partner that it can work with openly without disturbing either of the two nations, the United States and China. For India, this is a golden opportunity to catch up on the lost time.
Both New Delhi and Manila, key players in the Indo-Pacific region, have a common interest in the region’s security, particularly in the maritime arena, which includes vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and a range of traditional and non-traditional security challenges. Therefore, both India and the Philippines will benefit from closer relations as they will be able to maintain a rule-based order in the midst of China’s growing aggressiveness.
India understands that cooperation should be based on mutual concerns and goals without ignoring any of the national interests of the parties. This is in line with Marcos Jr.’s vision of an independent foreign policy that will give Manila great opportunities to expand its partnerships beyond its traditional neighborhood.
Marcos Jr. has expressed its willingness to strengthen security dialogue with key countries, as long as the national interests of the Philippines are respected. This is very much in line with the importance that India attaches to strategic autonomy.
INCREASES DEFENSE BAND
The Philippines has been a major player in the territorial conflicts of the South China Sea, especially the Spratly Islands dispute, since the early 1990s. Chinese restrictions have prevented the Philippines from pursuing oil and gas development and fishing in the disputed waters.
Although the Philippines won on almost every point in the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, Chinese ships still frequent the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone without interruption. Filipino boats cannot easily access the traditional fishing spots at the Scarborough Shoal due to Chinese harassment. Despite being a signatory to the treaty that established the court, China refuses to recognize its authority.
Satellite images have demonstrated China’s increased attempts to reclaim land in the South China Sea by expanding islands or building new islands in recent years. China has stacked sand on top of reefs, built ports, military installations and runways – especially on the Spratly Islands, where it has several outposts.
Marcos Jr. referred to the verdict as “no longer available to us” because he knows it is difficult to enforce it without China’s support. Rather, he seeks the state’s presence in disputed areas, a clear departure from Duterte’s policy of reconciliation. According to him, “It is to show China that we are defending what we consider to be our territorial waters. “
Philippine officials praised India’s support for the country’s case against China in the South China Sea and called for a deeper relationship between the two countries. In January 2022, India signed a $ 374 million trade to export BrahMo’s supersonic cruise missile to the Philippines. This would be the first Philippine weapon of deterrence.
For the Philippines, the rationale behind the acquisition of BrahMos is to improve its coastal defenses and keep track of Chinese presence. At the same time, India is seeking to increase its defense exports to strengthen its defense production and output.
With a foreign policy shift towards balancing and strategic autonomy expected under the Marcos Jr government, India and the Philippines are expected to have a higher level of cooperation, especially in the area of defense, positioning India as a reliable defense partner in the region. This will give India the much-needed push to reach the $ 5 billion goal in defense exports by 2025.
With a change in power, it is expected that Manila’s pro-China stance is likely to drop a notch. Marcos Jr. will take a foreign policy stance that is less skeptical of the United States, more apprehensive of China, and potentially more attracted to the idea of strengthening cooperation with like-minded countries like India.
A growing bilateral partnership with India will enable Manila to better protect its national interests, promote territorial sovereignty and achieve a truly rule-based order in the region. For India, a logistics agreement, increased joint naval exercises and a weapons agreement would provide a much-needed victory in the region and allow for power projection capacity in distant seas. It will also create opportunities for India to export the BrahMos cruise missile to countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and make a significant dent in the Southeast Asian defense market.
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Esha Banerji specializes in defense and strategic studies at Savitribai Phule Pune University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of this publication.