Opinion | BrahMos For Philippines: A Symbolic Win In The Choppy Indo-Pacific

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A new phase in India's defence ties with the Philippines commenced last week when the Indian Air Force handed the first batch of BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to the Philippines. Manila had first expressed its interest in 2019, with a $375 million contract signed in 2022 for the supply of three batteries of the shore-based, anti-ship variant of the BrahMos to the Philippines by BrahMos Aerospace Pvt Ltd, an Indo-Russian joint venture. Apart from two missile launchers, a radar and a command-and-control centre, the pact includes an integrated logistics support package and training for those manning the systems.

This is a major boost for Delhi-Manila ties. But the significance of this goes beyond the bilateral as India seeks to enhance its presence as a credible defence partner in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. Moreover, this also showcases the growing salience of India's domestic defence manufacturing base, which has been coming into its own as part of the wider 'Make in India' programme launched by the Modi government.

Philippines Is Building New Partnerships

Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippines is recalibrating its foreign policy priorities and moving away from the China-dominated outlook of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. Facing an aggressive China, Manila is reaching out and building substantive new partnerships that can give it enough space to manoeuvre. Manila is pursuing a multi-aligned foreign policy strategy, prioritising the strengthening and diversification of security and economic ties with both traditional and non-traditional allies. This approach is aimed at increasing its strategic options in a fluid regional and global geopolitical environment, particularly in response to increasing pressures from Beijing in the West Philippine Sea. Though the United States continues to be the primary security partner for the Philippines, it has now become imperative for Manila to broaden the ambit of its external partnerships.

Underlining the acquisition of BrahMos cruise missiles as a "significant game-changer", the Philippines views them as essential in pushing back against Chinese expansionist claims in the West Philippine Sea by bolstering the nation's coastal defence. Delhi and Manila are casting a relook at each other beyond defence transactions too. During his visit to Manila last month, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stated that prosperity in the region is "best served by staunch adherence to a rules-based order", highlighting the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a foundational aspect of this approach. He said that "all parties must adhere to [UNCLOS] in its entirety, both in letter and in spirit" and reiterated "India's support to the Philippines for upholding its national sovereignty".

India's Aim Of Expanding Its Indo-Pacific Role

A new robust defence policy has been announced by Manila in recent months and it is enhancing defence ties with like-minded partners. Earlier this month, Manila, Washington and Tokyo announced joint drills in their first-ever trilateral summit and there are plans to negotiate a new status of visiting forces agreement with New Zealand. A strong partnership with India will also be an important aspect of this new foreign policy matrix of Manila as New Delhi too seeks a greater role and voice in the wider Indo-Pacific.

India's role as a net security provider in the region is being crafted slowly but surely and India's defence supplies certainly enhance its credibility in this realm. Many regional players are looking at alternatives to the dominance of China and the US in the regional security calculus. India's naval presence and defence cooperation agreements extend its influence across the Indian Ocean and beyond. By engaging in joint exercises, capacity-building programmes, and humanitarian assistance missions, India asserts its commitment to fostering a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. New Delhi is an attractive partner given its history of defending strategic autonomy, but there have always been questions about its ability to deliver. The BrahMos delivery is an important turning point in this regard.

There is another aspect of the BrahMos missiles that is quite interesting. This missile is also a statement on close defence ties between Delhi and Moscow - the result of a joint venture between India's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia's NPO Mashinostroyeniya. And it has been sold to Manila, a close ally of the US, to manage the threat from China, an emerging strategic partner of Russia. New Delhi's unique role in contemporary geopolitics is reflected in this strange equation.

Evolving Defence Priorities

The sale of BrahMos also showcases how India's defence exports have surged in recent years, bolstered by the government's 'Make in India' initiative that is aimed at enhancing domestic defence production. By promoting indigenous capabilities and leveraging its growing defence industry, India aims to become a significant player in the global defence market from the world's largest arms importer, while simultaneously strengthening its national security and economic resilience.

Significant though it is, this one sale of BrahMos is neither going to resolve the defence challenges of Manila nor is it going to dramatically alter New Delhi's security profile in the region. But it highlights how Indian defence priorities are evolving rapidly amidst a wider regional flux.

[Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent books include 'India and the Gulf: Theoretical Perspectives and Policy Shifts' (Cambridge University Press) and 'Politics and Geopolitics: Decoding India's Neighbourhood Challenge' (Rupa)]

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author