India’s turn to the East: An opportunity for a broader India-Philippines Security Cooperation
Photo Source: ASEAN
Bilateral relations develop at varying paces. Some mature quickly, while others take years and even decades to mature. The India-Philippines bilateral relations fall under the latter. Seventy years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states, bilateral developments have been slow. However, with the passage of India’s “Look East Policy” (LEP) in 1992, developments started to pick up as India began prioritizing stronger relations with Southeast Asian countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In line with the LEP, India was able to enter strategic partnerships with Southeast Asian countries—such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia—and ASEAN.
With the revamping of the LEP to the “Act East Policy” (AEP) in 2014, which essentially broadened India’s engagements to include East Asian countries and security cooperation, India’s turn to the East further solidified. For one, India has become a more active member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad in promoting the shared vision of “a Free and Open Indo-Pacific” region governed by the rule of law. India’s growing commitment to the Quad was made clear during the two summit-level meetings held in March and September 2021. Against this dynamic landscape, a puzzle forms as to where does the India-Philippines bilateral relations stand and how could bilateral security cooperation be broadened.
Various frameworks in the form of agreements and joint meetings that would foster India-Philippine security cooperation have been laid down over the years. Three agreements—namely the Agreement Concerning Defense Cooperation (2006), Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Industry and Logistics Cooperation (2017), and Agreement on Sharing White Shipping Information (2019)—serve as the principal frameworks for India and the Philippines to cooperate in the security domain. Complementing these agreements are dialogues and joint meetings between the two states to discuss security matters. The first India-Philippines Security Dialogue was held in 2004, while the most recent meeting is the Joint Defense Cooperation Committee (JDCC) meeting held in 2020. In relation to these frameworks, both states engage in joint ventures that would boost military cooperation and capability. In the past decade, 13 Indian naval and coast guard ships visited the Philippines, and 12 military training and education took place between the two states. Information exchange has also been conducted. Through these frameworks and exchanges, the India-Philippines bilateral relations in the area of security have been consistent.
Comparing the state of security cooperation of both states with other countries will reveal that the India-Philippines security cooperation seems lagging. On the one hand, India has been more engaged in defense cooperation with other ASEAN-member countries, especially with those with whom it maintains strategic partnerships. On the other hand, the Philippines maintains stronger relations with its traditional partners such as the other Quad members whose military assistance is significantly broader compared to India’s. This reality is arguably a result of India being occupied with domestic issues like its border disputes with Pakistan and China, and the Philippines’ equally monotonous approach to strengthening bilateral relations with India. However, amid the increasing assertiveness of China, marked by the India-China clash in the disputed Ladakh region in 2020, India further has begun to shift its attention to the East. As it now actively engages like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific, India not only prevents itself from being confined within South Asia but also protects its national interest in the region.
With India’s pivot to the East, an opportunity for broader India-Philippines security cooperation has emerged. Such an opportunity can be capitalized in three ways. First, more areas of cooperation should be explored. These include primarily the security domain as well as nuclear energy and science and technology. Second, the capability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) needs to be further developed. Modernizing the military through procurement of foreign materiel proves to be the immediate solution but developing a Philippine defense industry should be the sustainable long-term solution. With a more capable, independent, and self-reliant military, the Philippines can potentially deepen security cooperation with India and even with its other security partners. Third, military-to-military engagements must be enhanced. Considering that both states are already engaged in military exchange training and information sharing, these existing engagements can be further broadened.
India-Philippines bilateral relations have had a slow start. While it has been smooth and peaceful, the relations have not been as strong compared with the other partners of India and the Philippines. Such a slow pace has been a product of varying factors both domestic and regional. With the synergy in the foreign policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, bilateral relations have picked up with even more emphasis on security cooperation.
Amid the recent developments in the Indo-Pacific landscape, specifically the increasing territorial assertiveness of China and the pivot of various Western powers to the Indo-Pacific, security cooperation now seems to be the way to go for both India and the Philippines. By forging stronger strategic partnerships and participating in multilateral platforms like ASEAN and the Quad, India and the Philippines can amass considerable clout that can safeguard the rule-based order in the region and protect their national interest. To date, both India and the Philippines may not be key strategic partners yet. However, the prospect of an even broader India-Philippines security cooperation may not be too far, especially given how recent developments have necessitated stronger strategic partnerships.
Jules Gerard V. Arceo is a faculty member of the Department of International Studies at Far Eastern University. He also taught at Tarlac Montessori School and Tarlac State University as a lecturer. He graduated cum laude from the University of Santo Tomas with an A.B. in Asian Studies. He also holds an M.A. in International Studies major in Asian Studies from De La Salle University, Manila. His research interests include international political economy, security, and global cooperation.