June 8, 2020

A Way Forward for India-Philippines Defense Relations

By Don McLain Gill

The Look East Policy has significantly developed India’s relations with Southeast Asian states; however, relations between the Philippines and India, in particular, have remained generally shallow. With Mr. Narendra Modi taking seat as India’s Prime Minister, relations between the two states received a much-needed boost. In addition, recent developments have changed the trajectory of Philippines-India strategic relations towards a more positive and substantial turn. The Philippines is currently in talks with India for the purchase of defense platforms from the latter including the BrahMos land-based supersonic missile system, according to India’s ambassador to the Philippines Jaideep Mazumdar. He stated that “There are discussions going on a range of weapons systems between India and the Philippines. Once travel becomes possible, the joint committee that looks at defense logistics will meet and discuss these things.”

Among the current defense platforms in discussion, the BrahMos missiles are the most intriguing. The BrahMos is a cruise missile that can be operated towards a pre-determined land- or sea-based target. It is classified as a supersonic cruise missile which can achieve a speed of 2.8 times the speed of sound. The name of the missile comes from two rivers, namely, the Brahmaputra and Moskva. The missile was jointly developed by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia’s Mashinostroyenia. According to a scientist of the DRDO, “India’s missile development program has made sure that its missiles are upgraded and new systems are also developed. BrahMos has undergone development through the early 2000s till date. Its land-to-land, submarine-fired and now air-fired variants have been developed stage by stage. Each new version has something additional compared to the previous version.”

The possible purchase of the BrahMos will not only diversify the Philippines’ defense-supply sources but will also provide the state’s defense force with possibly the first weaponry with a significant deterrent capability. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana suggested that a contract would be forthcoming this year. However, due to the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the process may be delayed temporarily.

Since Prime Minister Modi took the reins of the Indian government, the engagements between India and its Southeast Asian neighbors have revitalized under his flagship project, the Act East Policy which is a more reinvigorated version of the previous Look East Policy. Among the states in Southeast Asia, India has forged closer defense relations with the Philippines. In 2015, former Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made a reference to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea in a joint statement with her Filipino counterpart. In 2016, India has shown great support regarding an UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal ruling that backed the Philippines’ claim and invalidated many of China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea.

In 2017, India announced an immediate relief assistance of USD 500,000 for the relief and rehabilitation efforts underway in the city of Marawi. In the same year, Prime Minister Modi became the first Indian leader to visit the Philippines in 36 years. This visit resulted in a constructive meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and witnessed the signing of an agreement to enhance and boost defense and logistical cooperation. In 2018, the Philippines also participated in India’s annual Defense Expo.

Since Prime Minister Modi came to power, there has been an upward trend in strategic engagements between the Philippines and India. However, there is still room for improvement. First, defense ties between the two states have principally encompassed ship visits, defense exchanges, and training. The time is ripe for both states to start joint bilateral exercises at all levels, particularly for an improved counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism readiness. Second, China may serve as an obstacle for India and the Philippines to have a more robust defense partnership. This can be attributed to the constant security issues between Beijing and New Delhi. Despite this, India and the Philippines must continue pushing for a strengthened level of defense cooperation for both like-minded democracies to pursue collective goals at a time when uncertainty clouds the trajectory of global affairs.

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