Philippines-India Strategic Relations Poised to Grow

During their 4th Joint Defence Cooperation Committee (JDCC) and 2nd Service-to-Service (STS) Meeting recently, the Philippines and India stated their mutual commitment to strengthening the capacity of their defense partnership. It was also reported that Manila and New Delhi are in talks for the potential deployment of an Indian defense attaché to the Southeast Asian country. Having a designated Indian official to specifically oversee defense related areas of cooperation reflects the deepening and broadening of strategic relations between the two Indo-Pacific countries at a time when the region’s security architecture continues to be provoked by fluctuations of power brought about by the assertive rise of China and the intensifying power competition between the United States and China. Accordingly, given the current trajectory of the Philippine foreign policy under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., it is likely that India will not only be able to sustain the positive momentum that has surrounded the bilateral partnership since 2016, but also expand it based on contemporary geopolitical trends.

Contextualizing the Partnership

The dawn of the 21st century contained a series of significant structural shifts ranging from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the assertive rise of China, and the growth in India’s material capabilities. More importantly, the end of the Cold War saw the enhancement of strategic ties between India and the U.S. Such systemic attributes should have provided the Philippines with an opportunity to develop robust strategic and defense relations with India. However, more than two decades into the 21st century, the status of the bilateral defense partnership between the Philippines and India remained marginal. Despite the opportunities, Manila was not able to immediately maximize the utility of its partnership with New Delhi unlike other Southeast Asian states such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia. One of the notable reasons for this gap was the inability of Philippine state leaders, during that period, to synchronize their foreign policy perceptions with the opportunities presented by the shifts taking place in the international political system.

While India has endeavored to significantly enhance its strategic cooperation with Southeast Asia through its Look East Policy of 1991 and its reinvigorated Act East Policy of 2014, Manila’s leadership within this time frame often overlooked engaging formidably with India in the realm of defense cooperation. During the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), Philippine foreign policy centered on the concept of equi-balancing, which entailed maximizing relations with its traditional treaty ally and its largest immediate neighbor, the U.S. and China, respectively. Arroyo’s security perception was largely driven by domestic concerns, resulting in a less vigorous focus on external security and defense.  On one hand, coinciding with the U.S. war on terror under President George W. Bush, Arroyo sought to leverage its alliance with the Washington to gain material support on anti-terror policies in the south of the country.

On the other hand, despite China’s assertive posturing in the South China Sea during this period, Arroyo prioritized strengthening economic relations with Beijing to benefit the Philippine economy. There was little effort to diversify strategic partnerships beyond the Philippines’ traditional network. Hence, while relations between Manila and New Delhi normalized and remained positive with high level visits from both sides, India still maintained a marginal role based on the Arroyo government’s strategic radar. Despite the signing of the 2006 Agreement on Defence Cooperation, defense ties between both states remained quite limited and basic. Consequently, India was viewed by Manila as a distant neighbor with cooperation being limited to areas of low politics.

When President Benigno Aquino III rose to power in 2010, his foreign policy shifted to a more external-oriented security approach. This reorientation resulted in a more focused attention towards China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea against Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights. A case in point of the tense relations between Manila and Beijing during this period was the notorious 2012 maritime standoff between both sides within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), resulting in China’s de facto occupation of the Scarborough Shoal. Aquino thereby sought to shift Arroyo’s equi-balancing strategy between the U.S. and China to a more overt balancing with the U.S. against China.

Aquino’s external security-centered perception allowed the Philippines to engage more effectively with other non-traditional democratic partners such as India, and explore potential defense cooperative frameworks. During this period, the first Joint Defence Cooperation Committee was held in 2012 to act as a platform for forward-looking bilateral defense engagements that included arms trade and capacity building. While such agreements indicate an improved degree of interest in Manila, the lack of their operationalization during the Aquino administration reflect the lack of political willingness to utilize and maximize the potential of forging close defense relations with New Delhi. Based on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms register database, there were no records of any notable bilateral arms trade between India and the Philippines throughout Aquino’s presidency. In addition, bilateral defense cooperation remained basic, encompassing routine ship and delegation visits and disaster relief operations. Despite the significant momentum surrounding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy, the Philippines was not able to leverage on the growth of India and its desire to play a larger and more proactive role in Southeast Asia.

Towards a Golden Age?

When President Rodrigo Duterte won with a resounding electoral victory in 2016, he endeavored to significantly rebalance Philippine foreign policy away from its traditional outlook. He was able to redirect Philippine foreign policy more confidently beyond his predecessor’s U.S.-China-centric lens to a more dynamic approach as a means of harnessing the Philippines’ geopolitical significance in Asia. Accordingly, Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” approach centered on three core pillars: to lessen dependence on the U.S. on specific areas of cooperation, to improve relations with China, and to diversify strategic partnerships in Asia. This perceptual reorientation allowed Duterte to leverage on the conducive structural conditions that were already in place since the beginning of the 21st century to immediately realize the potential of a strengthened Philippines-India defense partnership.

From 2016 to 2022, a series of high-level visits took place. Prime Minister Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind and External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Manila in 2017, 2019 and 2022, respectively, while Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana made an official visit in 2018, which coincided with the invitations extended to President Duterte to be a chief guest for India’s prestigious Republic Day celebration in the same year. In addition, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. also visited India in 2022, which added further momentum to the strengthening strategic partnership.

The Duterte government showed great willingness to deepen and broaden defense relations with a rising India in sensitive areas that were not considered in the past – for example, maritime security cooperation. It was during this period when the Philippine defense establishment overtly acknowledged the growing and increasingly important role India is playing in ensuring the stability of the maritime domain. Consequently, with the rise of the Indo-Pacific construct in 2018, India began to be viewed as a vital partner and neighbor rather than a distant power. The Duterte presidency also saw a series of critical naval engagements between the Philippines and India in the South China Sea including a first ever quadrilateral naval exercise with the U.S. and Japan, and a bilateral exercise in 2021. Furthermore, a deal was signed between Manila and New Delhi in 2022 for the Philippines’ acquisition of the India-Russia BrahMos missile. Accordingly, weapons transfers provide the supplying country access to the receiving country’s military personnel, resulting in more avenues of solidifying military-to-military relations. 

The much-needed strategic icebreaker witnessed by the Philippines-India bilateral strategic relationship during the Duterte government indicates how the perceptions of state leaders play a critical role in utilizing the opportunities of the strategic environment.  While Arroyo and Aquino were unable to harness the utility of a strong Philippines-India defense partnership, Duterte’s foreign policy vision allowed such realizations to materialize, paving the way for more robust engagements in the years to come.

Sustaining and Enhancing Defense Ties

Today, President Marcos has expressed his desire to bank on his predecessor’s independent foreign policy approach. In this light, it is expected that the bilateral strategic partnership between the Philippines and India will only grow. During the 13th India-Philippines Foreign Office Consultations and fourth Strategic Dialogue in August 2022, both sides affirmed their desire to broaden and deepen defense and security cooperation. In fact, to expand the scope of defense cooperation, India offered operational, cyber security training to the Philippines military. Moreover, the 4th JDCC meeting held in March also illustrated how the defense relationship is trying to evolve further based on contemporary geopolitical trends. India and the Philippines also continue to collaborate institutionally through the elevated comprehensive strategic partnership between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In fact, Marcos himself advocated for a more robust ASEAN-India partnership on non-traditional security issues such as health, given the latter’s formidable expertise.

It can thus be assumed that the Marcos administration will seek to leverage the strengthening Philippines-India strategic partnership, given his desire for the Philippines to maximize its geopolitical position and diplomatic networks in the region with an emphasis on preserving national interest, underscoring Manila’s alliance with Washington, and ensuring that Manila does not fall victim to the intensifying U.S.-China power competition. This significantly converges with how India formulates its strategic partnerships, which are based on the significance of mutual interests and concerns, strategic autonomy, inclusivity, and the adherence to democratic principles. In addition, India’s robust partnership with the U.S. and its ability to manage relations with an assertive China add more significance to its partnership with the Philippines. Therefore, as India continues to rise, it can be expected that Manila will maintain and even enhance the potential of the Philippine-India defense partnership given the convergence between structural factors and the perception of state leaders.