The Press Trust of India recently revealed that senior officials from the Philippines and India are engaged in talks regarding Manila’s desire to fast-track its military modernization program. As it seeks to diversify and replace its aging helicopter fleet, the Philippines has shown its interest in acquiring a batch of India’s indigenously developed advanced light helicopters (ALH), which are known for their effectiveness in diverse military operations. What adds relevance to this development is that it comes after the BrahMos cruise missile deal, sealed between the two countries under the Duterte administration early this year.
After the Philippines-India strategic partnership received significant momentum under former President Rodrigo Duterte, bilateral ties are set to improve further under the leadership of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The Philippines is situated at a complex geopolitical juncture amid the intensifying power competition between the United States and China. Both great powers are vital components of Philippine foreign policy, with Washington being its traditional security and developmental partner and Beijing being its significant commercial partner and most materially-powerful immediate neighbor. However, Marcos Jr. does not seek to disturb the volatile security architecture of its immediate neighborhood by engaging in activities that will plunge the Philippines deeper into the power competition. Rather, by banking on an independent approach to foreign policy, he aims to provide the Philippines with a conducive environment for its growth and development without contributing further to the turbulent shifts in the regional balance of power.
While the Philippines will attempt to maximize positive relations with China, Marcos has shown that this will not come in the way of prioritizing the Philippine national interest and its sovereignty at a time when the ongoing South China Sea dispute and Beijing’s continued assertiveness remain causes for concern. The Marcos government’s decision to renegotiate more favorable terms with China on the funding of three major railway projects while also proactively considering alternative options is an example of this balance. However, Marcos will not want to compromise his relations with Beijing by provocatively taking sides in the U.S.-China competition. Rather, Manila will adhere to its responsibilities under its alliance with the United States without compromising the volatile security architecture of its immediate geographic neighborhood.
However, given its position in a critical geopolitical region marred with a plethora of traditional and non-traditional security issues, the Philippines must continue with its military modernization. The Marcos government has emphasized its steadfast commitment to enhancing the country’s military capabilities to effectively address issues of territorial defense, disaster response, and transnational crime. Last week, Marcos pledged to expedite the Philippines’ military modernization program, with a special emphasis on the Air Force. To achieve such a vision, the Marcos government has pushed for the diversification of defense partners under an independent foreign policy approach. It is in this light that the Philippines-India strategic partnership can achieve more momentum in the years to come.
It can be anticipated that the Marcos administration will support stronger ties with India, given its emphasis on enhancing security engagements with other major countries in the region, so long as the Philippines' national interest is respected and the country's alliance with the United States is highlighted. This converges with how India conceptualizes its partnerships. India recognizes that the foundation of cooperation must be centered on the convergence of mutual concerns and goals, without undermining any party's sensitivities and diverse interests. Moreover, India ticks most, if not all, the right boxes in terms of what Manila is looking for as a strategic partner.
India is a major Indo-Pacific power and an important pillar of the region’s rules-based order. Further, New Delhi adheres to the notion of strategic autonomy rather than indulging in rigid alliances or engaging in bloc politics. This can be seen through its balanced and rational responses to several international security issues, including the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. This level-headed decision-making has been widely welcomed, especially among Southeast Asian countries, which are also trying to strike a balance given their own immediate interests and security concerns.
Additionally, India is situated in arguably the most complex geopolitical neighborhood, sandwiched between two nuclear powers that seek to undermine its sovereignty and territorial integrity, while also facing a wide array of other non-traditional security issues. India’s ability to effectively maneuver amid these challenges is a best practice that can be incorporated by the Philippines.
Another factor is India’s growing indigenous defense manufacturing capabilities. With the Philippines constantly seeking to acquire a reliable, efficient, and cost-effective source of arms, a partnership with India is necessary. India’s defense exports have gained significant momentum recently. In 2021-2022, India’s defense exports saw a 54.1 percent increase from the previous year. Moreover, more potential export deals are underway with countries across Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both the Philippines and India are natural allies because they share common interests and goals regarding the stability of the Indo-Pacific. While structural conditions since the beginning of the twenty-first century provided a conducive platform for both countries to enhance strategic relations, the lack of interest from each country’s successive administrations failed to maximize the potential of the bilateral partnership, particularly in the field of defense. However, since 2016, the bilateral partnership was put into high gear, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy positively converging with Duterte’s independent foreign policy approach. With the Marcos government looking to build on his predecessor’s strategy, the level of engagement between both countries, particularly in defense, can be expected to increase further.
Don McLain Gill is a Philippines-based geopolitical analyst and author with over 100 publications on Indo-Pacific security, India-Southeast Asia relations, and Philippine foreign policy.