The Philippines and India, which share concerns about China’s territorial assertiveness, are drawing closer together on the back of two very different means of defence: missiles and Covid-19 vaccines.

On March 2, Manila signed an agreement with New Delhi to buy the Indian-made BrahMos PJ-10, the world’s fastest cruise missile, which it plans to use to defend its coastal areas in the face of Chinese encroachment.

In recent weeks, Shambhu Kumaran, New Delhi’s ambassador to the Philippines, said talks were ongoing for Manila to secure 8 million doses of the Covaxin vaccine developed by India’s Bharat Biotech, while Philippine “vaccine tsar” Carlito Galvez Jnr announced that the country had secured 30 million doses of Covovax after he had made a trip to India to finalise a supply deal.

Galvez said the Covovax vaccine – which is developed by US company Novovax and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) – would arrive in the third or fourth quarter of this year.

The purchases will be a shot in the arm for the Philippine government’s slow-going vaccination programme, which aims to inoculate at least 70 million Filipinos within 12 months.

While health secretary Francisco Duque III on Monday said the country had to vaccinate 450,000 people a day to hit that target, so far only 215,997 Filipinos – all health workers – have been inoculated, according to local media reports.

According to GMA News, as of March 15 the Philippines had only acquired 1.13 million doses donated by China and the Covax Facility, an international effort to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines.

Kishore Hemlani – the founder of Faberco, SII’s partner in the Philippines – earlier this year called the Covovax deal “a significant milestone in relations between India and the Philippines”.

Although the two countries have maintained diplomatic relations since 1949, ties have never been very close – but China and the pandemic are changing that.

Darshana Baruah, associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out that India launched its “Look East” policy in 1991 – New Delhi’s attempt to strengthen ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – and revised it to “Act East” in 2014 under the Modi administration.

“Prior to this, engagements were not as streamlined,” she said.

Derek Grossman, senior defence analyst at the RAND Corporation think tank, said India was increasingly concerned about China’s rising assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific region.

“For its part, the Philippines is also attempting to push back on Chinese encroachment into its exclusive economic zone, even though President Rodrigo Duterte is pro-Beijing and he has downplayed the challenges there,” he said.

A Philippine official who has dealt with India, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted how ties with New Delhi had intensified under Duterte.

“In particular, 2017 was marked by unprecedented high-level exchanges culminating in the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Manila, followed by a visit to India by President Duterte in 2018.” The official said that during Modi’s visit, “all aspects of the bilateral relationship were discussed, followed by the signing of several memorandums of understanding, including one on defence industry and logistics cooperation”.

Grossman told This Week in Asia that “the guiding light of India-Philippines cooperation these days is growing concern over China’s rising assertiveness, and what it means for maintaining a liberal rules-based international order and norms of behaviour”.

A senior Philippine official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said India and the Philippines had several things in common: “Democratic politics, western colonial experience, the English [language], and sovereignty disputes with China.” “India has a ‘Look East’ strategy of strengthening ties with countries in East and Southeast Asia, it favours freedom of international navigation in the South China Sea and occasionally sends its naval ships there,” he said.

Baruah of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also noted how New Delhi had backed Manila in its South China territorial dispute with Beijing.

“India made a statement supporting the 2016 United Nations tribunal decision favouring the Philippines,” she said, going so far as to “refer to the disputed areas as the ‘West Phililppine Sea’ – the term used by Manila”.

Now, Baruah said, “most of the ties between the Philippines and India are focused on capacity building and training efforts, with an emphasis on maritime security”.

When asked what India has to offer the Philippines, the senior official replied: “Diplomatic support – India has a wide network among members of the non-aligned movement and the British Commonwealth, and it is also part of the Quad with the US, Japan and Australia, which are all concerned about China’s assertive behaviour.” He also pointed out that closer ties would mean access to India’s developed pharmaceutical industry, which produces generic drugs in large quantities.

Ambassador Kumaran on March 11 said India was the Philippines’ largest source of pharmaceuticals.

In military terms, Baruah said “the BrahMos deal will considerably strengthen the military partnership, with Manila acquiring a missile system and India making its first export of the cruise missile”.

The Philippine military was supposed to acquire the missile last year, but the allotted funds had to be diverted to deal with the pandemic.

New Delhi is reported to have helped Manila finance the purchase with a soft loan of US$100 million.

“BrahMos makes a lot of sense because it is a relatively cheap and effective means of warding off Chinese aggression against the Philippines,” said defence analyst Grossman.

“Manila is likely to look into additional forms of asymmetrical warfare to complicate Chinese plans in the region.” While the senior official acknowledged that the missiles would not “significantly alter the balance of military power”, he said they were “a powerful symbol of Philippine efforts to boost its deterrence capability” that could “improve our defence posture and deter somewhat any potential external threat”.

“The prospects of closer political and economic ties [with India] are quite promising,” he said.

“As for military ties, there is a lot of room for defence cooperation, though neither side likely will push for a defence alliance.” But Grossman said he did not think relations would go very far.

“I’m quite sceptical that the two countries will make many inroads.

On the Indian side, the Philippines has little to offer in terms of military capabilities and strategy against China.

Air and naval platforms operated by the Philippine Armed Forces are in desperate need of modernisation, and frankly India can’t do it alone,” he said.

“Other Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, are much further along; in addition, their militaries are more compatible with India’s because of their reliance on ex-Soviet and Russian systems.

The Philippines has mostly American-made systems.” Grossman also said Duterte was “not willing to push the envelope too far with Beijing, so until he leaves office [at the end of his term] in 2022, all bets are off for deep cooperation with any external partner against China”.

According to Baruah, however, “the India-Philippines partnership has great potential and can become an important pillar of India’s growing interests and engagements in Southeast Asia”.

The senior official said China was likely to monitor the development of closer ties between the Philippines and India.

“In particular, it will closely follow if the sale of the BrahMos missiles will push through, and where they will be deployed,” he said.

“It’s too early to say how this issue will affect Philippine-China ties.”

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