FROM March 23 to 27, Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, will embark on a three-country visit to the Southeast Asian region upon the invitation of his counterparts in Singapore, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Accordingly, Mr. Jaishankar’s visit to Manila merits an independent evaluation given the positive momentum surrounding the strengthening bilateral partnership. Moreover, this will be his second visit to the Southeast Asian country since his first trip in 2022.

The Philippine-India partnership is today emerging as one of the most notable elements in contemporary Indo-Pacific geopolitics. While relations between Manila and New Delhi remained friendly since the end of the Cold War, it was only eight years ago when both sides sought to take their partnership forward, particularly in defense and maritime security. This was catalyzed by the convergence between New Delhi’s desire to proactively engage in Southeast Asia as a reliable security partner and Manila’s willingness to diversify its defense partnerships beyond its traditional networks.

Consequently, since this period, a series of significant developments have taken place at an unprecedented pace — from regular high-level visits from both sides and the sale of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to increasing the frequency of maritime exercises and institutionalizing maritime security cooperation with a long-term vision. While observers wonder how the Philippine-India partnership was able to achieve significant milestones in such a short period, it is important to note how, since the turn of the century, both countries were already like-minded in their desire to secure the established order and engage based on international law as responsible and democratic stakeholders of the region. However, the most critical impediment then was the lack of awareness about one another. Such a lack of awareness is now being replaced by mutual understanding and respect.

Under the current administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the Philippines is firmly prioritizing the security of its sovereignty and sovereign rights based on international law. The passing of the Maritime Zones Act in February and the recently adopted Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept aim to not only allow the Philippines to govern its seas based on international law more efficiently, but also to improve its capabilities in protecting and securing its entire territory and Exclusive Economic Zone. From a foreign policy angle, Manila seeks to deepen and broaden its security ties with like-minded traditional and non-traditional partners to keep the West Philippine Sea open and rules-based, while improving its maritime security and deterrence capabilities amidst an increasingly belligerent China with expansionist ambitions. As the fifth largest economy that is poised to become the third in less than seven years, India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has become more willing and confident in translating its growing material capabilities into more robust and proactive policies of external engagement throughout the entire Indo-Pacific. This stark contrast to New Delhi’s traditional foreign policy preoccupation in its immediate neighborhood stems from the realization that the security dynamics of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific are becoming increasingly interdependent. Moreover, by establishing the Act East Policy in 2014, New Delhi has illustrated its commitment to positioning itself as a reliable security provider in Southeast Asia amidst the polarizing dynamics of the United States-China competition. In fact, since 2014, India has become more vocal in keeping the greater South China Sea open, inclusive, free, and based on international law.

In this context, New Delhi’s growing support for Manila in the West Philippine Sea can be seen. It was in 2015 when New Delhi first used the term “West Philippine Sea” to indicate its recognition of Manila’s legitimate claims. At the 15th East Asia Summit in November 2020, Mr. Jaishankar stated how “Chinese actions and incidents in the South China Sea had eroded trust in the ongoing negotiations on the proposed code of conduct in the region.” Furthermore, during Philippine Foreign Affairs Minister Enrique Manalo’s visit to New Delhi in July 2023, both ministers emphasized the need to adhere to the 2016 Arbitral Ruling, which nullified China’s expansionist interests in the West Philippine Sea. Moreover, the foreign ministers also agreed to deepen the scope of their maritime security partnership.

As an illustration of both sides’ commitment to follow through with this roadmap, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Indian and Philippine Coast Guards in August 2023 to institutionalize a more active maritime domain awareness and intelligence-sharing cooperative framework in the tumultuous waters of the region. Moreover, in December 2023, Indian Ambassador to the Philippines Shambhu Kumaran also noted that India is seeking to increase its maritime security activities with the Philippines regarding ship visits and exercises. Furthermore, at the Indian Embassy-led defense industry seminar in Makati City in February, Mr. Kumaran once again reiterated India’s willingness to build the Philippines’ defense capabilities by not only providing soft loans but also going beyond the buyer-seller framework by sharing best practices to support the Southeast Asian country’s self-reliance interests. Additionally, with Filipinos comprising the largest percentage of seafarers globally, the unfolding instability in the Red Sea provides another important area of cooperation between the Philippines and India, giving the Indian Navy a potent role as the first responder to any security issue in the Indian Ocean. For instance, in January, the Indian Navy thwarted a hijacking attempt on a merchant vessel in the Arabian Sea carrying six Filipino crewmembers.

Therefore, the quest to continuously deepen and broaden the already strengthening Philippines-India security partnership is a natural and necessary process for both countries during great geopolitical turbulence in the region. As a fellow democracy and rising great power with no narrowly driven ambitions in Southeast Asia, India is an undeniable element in Manila’s contemporary strategic calculations, especially since New Delhi maintains robust ties with other vital Philippine partners like Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra. While India’s influence in Southeast Asia may not yet be up to par with the US, China, or Japan, it is increasingly becoming a partner of choice among several Southeast Asian countries that seek to diversify their options without compromising their political autonomy and national interests.


Don McLain Gill is a Philippines-based geopolitical analyst, author, and lecturer at the Department of International Studies, De La Salle University.