SOURCE: The Manila Times

THE driving force in a meaningful bilateral partnership is the convergence in perspectives on shared challenges and concerns, coupled with collaborative steps to counter it. Most soft attributes, such as shared commitment to democracy, the English language, a colonial past, to name a few, are essentially peripheral to a relationship, though they can certainly be enablers.

India and the Philippines share many such commonalities. Yet, for decades, the relationship was at best polite and at worst, lacked depth and substance. This has dramatically changed with the shifts that took place within Manila’s domestic politics, and the alterations in the overarching regional security architecture brought by the expansionist aspirations of China and the intensifying power competition between Washington and Beijing in the Western Pacific region.

Non-traditional partners With the advent of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s independent approach in Philippine foreign policy in 2016, Manila began to notably recalibrate the trajectory of its external relations, which paved the path for more robust strategic ties with non-traditional partners, such as India. This reformed foreign policy approach also coincided with the rising threats posed by an increasingly assertive China. While the Duterte administration sought to manage ties with China, Beijing’s narrowly defined regional ambitions continue to provoke the Philippines’ sovereignty and sovereign rights, particularly in the West Philippine Sea.

Under Xi Jinping, China has demonstrated scant regard for fraternal relations and international law that could have a lasting and damaging impact on the Indo-Pacific, which would be inimical to global welfare. Both New Delhi and Manila have experienced combative, aggressive and arbitrary Chinese intrusions challenging their sovereignty and strategic interests. This lies at the heart of rapidly enhanced defense and security cooperation between India and the Philippines. The $375-million contract to supply shore-based anti-ship Brahmos supersonic missiles to the Philippines, the increase in regular high-level security meetings from both sides and the enhancement of naval exercises, are reflections of an entirely new way of engaging with each other to counter China’s expansionist agenda in the region.

Under the current administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Manila realizes that the gravity of Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions is a matter of critical concern for the security of Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights. Reaching out to like-minded partners to strengthen its defense capabilities is the best way forward to deter and check Beijing. Marcos’ desire to deepen and broaden the Philippines’ security partnership with the United States, Japan and Australia, along with his visit to Washington from April 30 to May 4, serve as testaments to this acknowledgement.

Convergences It is in this context that the potential remains high for the Philippines and India to further expand the scope of their evolving strategic partnership. Manila and New Delhi converge in several key areas of concern. Both countries seek to maintain the functionality of a democratic, equitable, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific. Both Indo-Pacific neighbors also share apprehensions regarding the possibility for the region to fall deeper into a catastrophic military confrontation that the global community can ill afford.

Manila and New Delhi have also experienced China’s notorious attitude of ensuring political cooperation on one hand while congruently disrespecting its neighbor’s sovereignty on the other. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted President Xi Jinping in 2019 in the context of improving bilateral relations, Chinese troops were simultaneously crossing into Indian territory in an unabashed manner. Similarly, when Beijing pledged to manage bilateral ties with Manila during the meeting between Marcos and Xi in January, China once again engaged in provocative acts against Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights within Philippine waters just days after. The same thing occurred days after Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s Manila visit in April. These continued acts of deception have critically damaged trust vis-…-vis Beijing.

The Philippines is conscious of Beijing’s obsession with the belief that the South China Sea (SCS) belongs to them. Marcos is a proactive and astute negotiator, and is acutely aware that Manila’s relations with Beijing had started to sour over a decade ago when China unilaterally claimed ownership of the entire SCS. India, similarly, is aware of Chinese claims on vast areas of its territories. Both New Delhi and Manila realize that only a collaborative approach would send an unequivocal message to Beijing.

India also maintains close and robust strategic relations with the Philippines’ major defense partners. India continues to deepen and broaden its multifaceted security relations with Australia, the US and Japan bilaterally, and through several multilateral formats like the Quad, the Malabar and the Group of 20. The China threat is multidimensional and accords possibilities of enhanced cooperation between India and the Philippines, including in areas, such as cybersecurity and critical technologies, AI (artificial intelligence), robotics, satellite technology and space research, at a time when Beijing’s approach toward the West Philippine Sea relies heavily on asymmetric and non-military means of pursuing strategic objectives in a slow but sure fashion.

The rise of the Philippines-India strategic partnership has just recently begun. Marcos and Modi must continue to strengthen the momentum of their evolving strategic partnership. The recent indication of willingness from both sides for India to deploy a defense attaché for its embassy in the Philippines is a step in the right direction. Moreover, India’s offer to enhance Manila’s cyber defense capabilities, and the completion of the first-ever maritime exercises between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this month are other welcome developments.

For the rest of the globe, struggling to recover from the pandemic, to cope with the negative spillovers of the war in Eastern Europe and to craft policies to address China’s increasing assertiveness, it will be a proactive and pragmatic step for the Philippines and India to further enhance and elevate the status of their improving partnership.