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Step it up with Manila

Step it up with Manila

Inscrutable China
Last Updated 30 March 2024, 21:27 IST

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar toured the Philippines March 25-27, meeting President Ferdinand Marcos and his Foreign and Defence Secretaries and discussing bilateral and strategic ties, counter-terrorism, defence cooperation and maritime domain awareness.

Most significantly, in his speeches, Jaishankar expressed support for Philippines’ sovereignty in the context of its maritime and territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea and pointedly reiterated the rule of law as enshrined in the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Seas. While China protested these comments as “interfering in its internal affairs”, Jaishankar was only administering Beijing its own Chinese medicine. For years, China has toyed with Delhi using India’s neighbours Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and increasingly Maldives.

Both India and the Philippines have been facing Chinese aggression on multiple fronts. The details of China’s continued occupation of disputed territory in the Eastern Ladakh-Aksai Chin area and obstruction of Indian patrolling in the Depsang plains amid the four-year-long military standoff in the mountains are well-known. In the maritime domain, China conducts nearly 30 surveillance missions in the Indian Ocean, scouring through seabed resources as well as snooping on the Indian Navy and India’s ballistic missile tests, including the recent Agni-5 MIRV test. Despite Indian protests, China docked a surveillance ship at Hambantota port in Sri Lanka two years ago. A similar situation of China’s unilateralism has prevailed in South China Sea, too, since 2014.

Despite China’s late-1980s promise to peacefully resolve the South China Sea disputes (involving maritime boundaries and islands with Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia Vietnam and Philippines) and to jointly exploit resources there with them, China has undertaken unilateral measures to claim sovereignty over the entire region based on historical claims.

Despite the July 2016 ruling at The Hague quashing any historical claims, upholding local traditional communities’ rights over fishing and criticising environmental degradation due to dredging projects, China has built more than 3,000 acres of infrastructure on the disputed islands and deployed missiles, fighter jets and naval forces and has denied freedom of navigation to other countries, including the Philippines and India. This is destabilising one-third of globe shipping and nearly 40% of Indian trade. China has aggressively sent oil rigs and coastguard ships to intimidate the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and other disputants and users of the sea. Beijing wanted an exclusive but non-binding “Code of Conduct” with some South-East Asian countries, in a bid to diminish the stakes of the US, Japan, Australia and India in the region.

China’s aggressive patrolling in the Philippines’ territorial waters at Second Thomas Shoal is creating ripples in the region. Located within 200 nautical miles of the Philippines (and 600 nautical miles away from China’s Hainan island), the Philippines is well within its jurisdiction to patrol the region. However, China’s intrusions have increased in the past decade.

Similar to the way it has prevented Indian patrolling in the Depsang Plains in Ladakh since 2020, China’s Coast Guard has been obstructing Philippine resupply ships approaching the Second Thomas Shoal since 2014. It has relentlessly coerced the Philippines with not only Coast Guard deployments but also by using water cannons on the Philippine supply ships since 2021, stepping up the intensity since August 2023. The region is thus sitting on a powder-keg, and that calls for the leadership in both the Philippines and India to wake up and prepare.

However, the responses of successive leaderships in both countries has been lackadaisical and myopic in nature. Even the recent Indian shift from Look East to Act East policy lacks teeth. Moreover, like PM Modi before 2020, the previous Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte also courted China’s Xi Jinping in the hope of better ties. Instead, Beijing attempted to soften up both New Delhi and Manila on trade while stealthily building up positions and upping the ante on territorial disputes on the borders with India and in the South China.

Both Delhi and Manila were thus looking to step up bilateral cooperation and counter China. But progress has been sketchy and at best cosmetic. Bilateral interactions at the highest levels have been few and far between since Indira Gandhi’s visit to Manila in 1981.

One major exception to the largely uneventful bilateral relations has been cooperation in defence matters, including the $375-million deal in 2022 to supply the BrahMos missile system to the Philippines. It was to be given to Vietnam but had been stuck in red tape. India is also considering supplying the Philippines with fast attack craft, training and capacity building.

When China has supplied nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and conventional weapons to Pakistan and other South Asian countries, and continues its aggressive activities in the South China Sea, can New Delhi and Manila afford to continue to be complacent and lethargic in joining hands to counter the common challenges they face?

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