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India’s Subtle Backing of the Philippines in the South China Sea – The Diplomat

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Over the past months, the Philippines and China have been involved in repeated risky encounters around the contested Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines has a troop detachment stationed on a grounded naval vessel. In 2024, the South China Sea might become a larger hotspot than Taiwan, with major countries having a stake in limiting China’s actions in the region. The need for an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct to manage disputes is more critical than ever. ASEAN’s efforts to bring peace, stability, and security to the region should be based on coordination between major powers like the United States and China. However, current developments in the South China Sea are far from collaborative. Both China and the Philippines have documented incidents and presented their perspectives to the world, highlighting what they perceive as unfair encroachments on their sovereign rights. China argues that the Philippines has violated its historical nine-dash line claim and has involved extra-regional players in the region, potentially triggering a war. In contrast, the Philippines, backed by the 2016 arbitral tribunal verdict defining its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea and nullifying China’s historical claim, has provided evidence of dangerous maneuvers by the China Coast Guard and actions against Philippine civilian vessels. These actions include the use of water cannons and lasers to blind Philippine crews. The increasing presence of extra-regional powers in the South China Sea has the potential to shift the balance away from China and its historical claims in the region. This shift could impede the exploration of abundant oil and gas resources in the South China Sea, as well as hinder China’s ambitions to enhance its existing artificial islands and naval basins.

The emergence of AUKUS – a security alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – has exacerbated tensions and contributed to Chinese concerns. China is apprehensive that this trilateral alliance may lead to nuclear proliferation, spark an arms race, and instigate new age sabotage on critical infrastructure, above all fostering a Cold War mentality that threatens peace, prosperity, and stability. In November 2023, China accused a Canadian military aircraft of illegally entering Chinese airspace and provocatively approaching China’s borders. Canada countered these claims by asserting the incident occurred in international waters, accusing China of obstructing freedom of navigation by flying close to the helicopter. Beijing condemned Ottawa’s support for Manila’s legal rights in its EEZ, alleging a violation of Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. The stakes are notably high for regional players in the South China Sea. Countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia, which have their own claims in the area, are deeply concerned about maintaining territorial coherence and securing access to vital natural resources.

The United States, in its role of preserving regional stability, supports the claims of some of China’s neighboring states, conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), and upholds commitments under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. This treaty, which mandates mutual support in case of an attack on either side, further complicates the South China Sea issues.

Japan, Russia, and India are also significant players in the South China Sea, adding to the geopolitical complexity. India’s approach in particular in worth examining, given the country’s rising global leadership role and its tense relationship with China. India and the Philippines share a common interest in the Indo-Pacific, envisioning it as free, open, and inclusive. New Delhi has maintained strong ties with Manila, exemplified by the recent contract to supply three batteries of BrahMos missiles to the Philippines, aimed at countering China’s influence in the South China Sea.

However, India is cautious about engaging in direct drills against China in the South China Sea, recognizing China’s stronger position with control over many of the region’s islands. Additionally, India’s primary focus is on maintaining its presence and dominance in the Indian Ocean Region rather than interfering in the geopolitics of Southeast Asia. India’s intent is to prioritize economic growth while ensuring the security and stability of its boundaries. Thus India, as a proud non-aligned member of BRICS and a participant in the U.S.-led “Quad,” maintains a stance of supporting the Philippines without direct interference in the ongoing disputes.

The inception of India’s Look East Policy in 1992 marked an intensified engagement with the Philippines and other ASEAN countries. In 2014, this policy evolved into the Act East Policy, further diversifying relations with Manila across various domains such as political-security, people-to-people connections, trade, defense, health, tourism, and agriculture. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a significant bilateral meeting with then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018, covering all aspects of the relationship. This meeting resulted in the signing of five Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) on Defense Industry and Logistics Cooperation, Agriculture Cooperation, collaboration between the Indian Council of World Affairs and the Philippines’ Foreign Service Institute, cooperation on micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME), and a partnership between the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the University of the Philippines to establish a chair of India studies.

In 2020, Modi reaffirmed the importance of the Philippines in India’s Act East Policy and its Indo-Pacific Vision, emphasizing the need to expand bilateral relations. A potential visit by India’s prime minister to Manila could instill confidence in the Philippines regarding Indian ties, particularly considering the recent absence of such visits. Modi has visited the Philippines just once since he assumed office in 2014, a trip centered on attending the ASEAN-India and East Asia Summits in November 2017. Such a visit could also serve as a diplomatic message to Beijing, urging a cessation of China’s bullying tactics against the Philippines and the respect of sovereignty.

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s meeting with Philippines Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo in New Delhi in June 2023 further strengthened bilateral cooperation in defense, encompassing a concessional Line of Credit to meet the Philippines’ defense requirements, joint exercises on maritime security, expansion of training, cooperation on disaster response, and the acquisition of naval assets. The diplomats also expressed interest in expanding collaboration into emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and space. India’s was the fastest-growing major economy in 2023, with robust foreign exchange reserves, stable interest rates, moderate inflation, and growing consumer demand combining to result in a growth rate of 6.3 percent. These positive economic indicators are anticipated to continue into 2024, providing the Philippines with more incentives to foster economic ties with India. Strengthening bonds with a thriving economy not only enhances growth prospects but also serves as a deterrent to China’s bullying tactics, potentially prompting a shift in attitude toward respecting territorial boundaries.

When it comes to the maritime disputes, India should continue to play second fiddle, supporting the Philippines in the South China Sea, but focusing on providing assistance to the Philippines in mainland areas through investments in critical infrastructure. In addition, India can enhance maritime trade with the Quad nations and establish an extensive information network to aid the United States in formulating long-term strategies.

Collaborating with the Philippines, particularly in the realm of green energy, specifically offshore wind energy, can not only help transition the Philippines away from its coal dependence but also serve as platforms for monitoring Chinese activities in the South China Sea. This green energy collaboration could encourage other Quad members to participate in the shift from fossil fuels, ensuring that the South China Sea becomes a hub for offshore wind and green hydrogen. Unlike fossil fuel counterparts that often lead to conflicts, renewables have the potential to foster collaboration and partnership.

The increasing involvement of extra-regional players in the South China Sea may pave the way for expanded trade among ASEAN nations and the rest of the world, ultimately contributing to economic development, security, and prosperity. It is crucial for the international community to perceive the South China Sea not as a potential flashpoint for the next great war but as a region brimming with opportunities for economic collaboration and growth.

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