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India, Philippines step up defence engagement: Wary of China, New Delhi is looking east again


The importance of India’s Act East policy aimed to buttress ties with ASEAN countries has also grown in the backdrop of Beijing’s aggressive maneuvering in the South China Sea.
November 9, 2020 by Times Now Digital
Key Highlights
In December 2019, Philippines had announced interest in purchasing two batteries of India’s Brahmos missiles
The Act East policy is a refurbishing of India’s Look East policy formulated in the early 1990s meant to serve the dual purposes of enhancing commercial links within the neighbourhood while spurring development opportunities in India’s North-east
Since 2014, the Narendra Modi-led government has engaged in numerous discussions with ASEAN nations where the emphasis has largely been on ensuring freedom of navigation in international waters
At the fourth meeting of the joint commission on bilateral cooperation, co-chaired by external affairs minister S Jaishankar and Philippines Secretary of Department of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr, India and the Philippines agreed to strengthen defence engagement and maritime cooperation, particularly in military training and in the procurement of defence equipment. Both sides have held wide-ranging discussions reviewing the status of New Delhi-Manila relations and their future. 
The Philippines, a treaty ally of the United States, share a commonality in that they are both engaged in disputes with China, and are, by and large, both advocates of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. 

However, relative to other ASEAN nations, India’s strategic interaction with Manila has been wanting by some margin. In December 2019, Philippines had announced interest in purchasing two batteries of India’s Brahmos missiles, but those discussions were halted prematurely as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The deal would have marked the first export deal for the Brahmos missile – a charge India has found especially difficult to do, despite numerous on-and-off discussions with Vietnam as well. 


India acting East


However, given the ongoing territorial disputes that several ASEAN nations including Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have with Beijing in the highly strategic South China Sea, the latest agreement with the Philippines assumes added significance and is yet another win for India’s Act East policy. The Act East policy is a refurbishing of India’s Look East policy formulated in the early 1990s meant to serve the dual purposes of enhancing commercial links within the neighbourhood while spurring development opportunities in India’s North-east. 
India has made some progress in bolstering ties with ASEAN nations like Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Pacific Islands but has, in recent years, faced some resistance, not least that brought about by COVID-19. 
However, China’s militarization and occupation of disputed waters have emboldened several countries to transform their strategic engagement with India having coming to view it as a key counter-balancing force in the Indo-Pacific. In October, India and Myanmar agreed to operationalise the strategic Sittwe port in Rakhine and initiate the next steps in constructing the crucial Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highways. The port project is viewed as India’s response to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative aimed to dramatically increase Beijing’s geostrategic footprint in the region. 
Since 2014, the Narendra Modi-led government has engaged in numerous discussions with ASEAN nations where the emphasis has largely been on ensuring freedom of navigation in international waters, the importance of a rules-based order and the peaceful resolution of disputes. 
In 2015, India and Vietnam issued a joint communique denouncing freedom of navigation threats and the coercion in the South China Sea. The joint statement was followed up with India sending a four-ship naval fleet to Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Indonesia in June 2015. Vietnam, Japan and India have also initiated trilateral format talks to mutually enhance security policies. 
India’s Act East policy has been instrumental in countering China’s hegemonistic tendencies but, in the view of some analysts, requires a more strategic focus. Expediting the swathe of connectivity projects in the pipeline with ASEAN will be critical in building long-lasting economic and defence interdependencies. 

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