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‘Bahala Na’ to Brahmos ; Capt. Shyam Sundar (Retd)

Updated: Jan 23, 2023


Image Courtesy: Naval technologies

Article 12/2022

The first-ever defence export order of the Brahmos supersonic missile system to the Philippines’ Navy is a significant milestone for India. As usual, this news of $ 374 mn export contract of shore-based anti-ship variant of Brahmos is lost in the maze of news on Omicron and antics in the poll-bound States, in the Indian media. The strategic benefits of exporting military hardware and the potential revenue streams it can generate are yet to be fully realised in India.


India – Philippines Bilateral Relations.


India and the Philippines established diplomatic relations in 1949, shortly after the Independence of both countries, post-WW II. Though the relationship was cordial, the cold war alignments compelled that the relationship remained ‘muted and indifferent. Only in 1976, did this relationship begin to normalize. Industrialist Mr Aditya Birla visited Manila, met the then President Ferdinand Marcos with a proposal to set up a joint venture in the textile sector. It resulted setting up of Indo-Phil Textile Mills Inc, the first and the largest Indian investment in the Philippines.


Substantial political cooperation and policy consultation talks on bilateral/ international common issues were established only in the year 2000. After many rounds of high-level exchanges, policy consultation talks and mechanisms between 2000 – 2005, a significant Head of the State visit gave impetus in their relations. It was the visit of then President APJ Abdul Kalam in 2006, during which the important Defence cooperation agreement was signed. This agreement was still limited to the exchange of military training expertise and information, military observers and mutual port calls of naval ships and aircraft. However, both sides have consistently recognised the need to elevate the relationship to the next level of defence cooperation. Under these circumstances, the latest Brahmos export deal between the two countries is a ‘big leap’ and indeed a ‘momentous occasion’ in their defence cooperation.


Dynamism in India – ASEAN Relations.

India’s ‘Look East Policy’, enunciated in the 1990s in search of its economic space has today matured into a dynamic and action-oriented ‘Act East Policy’. In fact, the last three decades of India-ASEAN dialogue has led to increased cooperation in the politico-military, economic and socio-cultural sectors. Thanks to the Chinese hegemonistic designs in the South China Sea (SCS), India’s vision of the ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative’ (IPOI) has taken centre stage and has started shaping the India-ASEAN strategic cooperation. During the India-ASEAN Ministerial meeting held in September 2020, the newly adopted ‘Plan of Action’ (2020-2025) is expected to further propel the concept of IPOI, forging dynamism in this relationship.

While five out of ten ASEAN countries have locked horns with China in their maritime territorial dispute in SCS, it is observed that the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia are pivoting towards India, looking for solutions to solve their disputes. While the Philippines government has signed the Brahmos deal, Vietnam and Indonesian governments are at the discussion stage of procurement of this missile system. As it unfolds, the present scenario is only going to strengthen India’s position and provide the much needed security balance in the region.


Philippines – China Relations.

Historically, the Philippines’ relations with China have been blowing hot & cold. Early Chinese immigrants settled in Philippines were successful in the retail markets and contributed to the economics of Philippines. However, ‘atheist’ Chinese were not well accepted in the roman catholic society of Filipinos. As Edgar Wickberg, author of the book ‘The Chinese in Philippine life’ wrote, “by the year 1600, the Philippine Chinese had come to be regarded by the Spanish as economically necessary, culturally undesirable and politically untrustworthy”. This attitude of Filipinos towards Chinese immigrants continued and even extended to mainland China for a predominant period in their history, till large scale Chinese economic investments started in the 20th century.


During President Duterte’s regime, Manila’s policies on handling China have taken many a wrong turn. It ranged from ‘appeasing’ & ‘cozying up’ to China to the ‘empty rhetoric’ on its claims on Scarborough shoals. Despite the 2016 Hague verdict of the ownership of Shoals going in favour of Manila, the ‘lack of political will’ to maintain a strong maritime presence to protect its rightful EEZ resulted in the fizzling out of progress made, legally. Also, Duterte’s disdain for the country’s relationship with the USA has only emboldened Beijing into bullying Manila.


The year 2012 saw the flare-up of Scarborough Shoal sovereignty between China & the Philippines. It’s a chain of reefs and rocks, located at a distance of 120 nautical miles West of Philippines coast in SCS. The counter claims by the Chinese and the subsequent harassment by Chinese Coast Guard have resulted in growing anger amongst Filipino fisher folks. Their livelihood was affected due to the interference of Chinese forces in their traditional fishing grounds. Manila, though, continued to ‘soft pedal’ and ‘not antagonize’ Beijing on the issue. However, with the Presidential election in May 2022 and growing ‘anti-China’ protests from its own people for the past decade, Manila has finally taken the ‘right turn’, firmly.


Conclusion.

The procurement of Brahmos by the Philippine government is a welcome step in boosting naval capability, asserting its maritime sovereignty and maintaining its ‘principled stance’ against expansionist China, in SCS.


The Indian government is gearing up to celebrate 30 years of ASEAN-India Friendship year in 2022. Indo- Philippine relationship must make the most of the ‘shared values – common destiny’ theme. India needs to ease the process of exporting Brahmos and other military systems, to friendly countries in SE Asia and provide LoC in the procurement of military hardware.


The India-Philippines relationship has come a long way. It is important to go beyond ‘diplomatic niceties’ and consolidate the relationship. For New Delhi, strengthening defence partnership with Manila should be a priority. One of the key persons in any bilateral defence relations is the resident Defence Attache’ in the respective countries. Sadly, we don’t have one. The repeated requests of the Indian Ambassador (at Philippines) and the Indian Navy, for a dedicated Naval Defence Attache’ to be based in Manila, hasn’t been acted upon till date. If India wants a serious bilateral relationship with Philippines, it is time she positioned a Naval DA at Manila and stop the ‘step-motherly’ treatment by asking Singapore Naval DA to look after Manila’s defence requirements.


Finally, it must be understood that the Filipinos’ life philosophy of ‘Bahala Na’ (the Spanish equivalent ‘Que Sera Sera’ – whatever will be, will be) can no longer be followed in the India-Philippines bilateral relationship.


It is time to heave-in anchor, on priority and cast-off this ship.


(Captain N Shyam Sundar (Retd) is an Indian Navy veteran. Apart from rich operational experience of command of ships and shore establishment, he has done an overseas staff course and held important appointments in tri-services institutions. He was a faculty at the prestigious Defence Service Staff College (DSSC) Wellington. He is a keen watcher of the Indo-Pacific region, maritime affairs and naval operations.The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of C3S.)

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