Manila Matters

When India looks east,the Philippines hardly figures on its radar.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: September 4, 2013 12:19:23 am

When India looks east,the Philippines hardly figures on its radar for there is little awareness in Delhi of Manila’s growing strategic significance for Asia. Long viewed as the “sick man of Asia”,the Philippines is now roaring like a tiger and set to influence the region’s strategic evolution. Thanks to a series of purposeful reforms over the last few years,the Philippines is now the fastest growing economy in Asia after China. Goldman Sachs,which invented the concept of BRICS,has identified the Philippines as one of the 11 emerging economies to watch out for. With a population of nearly 100 million,a hard-working labour force and a diaspora of 12 million,Manila is likely to become the world’s 15th largest economy by the middle of this century.

Geography and location make the Philippines a critical factor in Asian geopolitics. As an archipelagic nation with more than 7,100 islands,the Philippines straddles the waterways of East Asia that connect the old continent to itself,the Indian Ocean and the Americas. More than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines was overturned by the then rising power,the United States,at the turn of the 20th century. Japan briefly occupied the Philippines during World War II,but the US returned and granted full independence to the Philippines.

Amidst the rise of China,the American pivot to Asia and the new Japanese assertiveness,the Philippines has emerged at the heart of the new maritime contestation in the South China Sea. Unlike many Asian capitals that are paralysed by the new great power rivalry,Manila is making bold choices.

Maritime Pivot

If you think of “pivot” as a noun rather than a verb as in the current American discourse,the Philippines is it in the Indo-Pacific. During the Cold War,the Philippines hosted one of the biggest American naval bases in the world at the Subic Bay. Along with the Clark air base,the Philippines provided the military pivot from which US armed forces could dominate Asia’s waters.

After the Filipinos overthrew the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986,the democratic dispensation in Manila withdrew the base faculties for America in 1991. Two decades later,confronted with aggressive territorial push around the islands claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea,Manila is renewing its military partnership with the US.

Manila’s rapidly changing relationship with Beijing and Washington was underscored last week in two separate events. In the first,the president of the Philippines,Benigno Aquino,cancelled a planned visit to China. Aquino was to attend an ASEAN-China trade expo this week in Nanjing,but called it off at the last minute citing unreasonable Chinese political demands. Senior officials in Manila told the press that Beijing wanted the Philippines to withdraw an arbitration case it had filed last January at the UN on the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

In the second,Manila hosted US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel to finalise arrangements for a more effective American military presence in the Philippines to counter what it sees as provocative patrolling by the Chinese navy. Manila is not offering permanent bases to Washington but negotiating the terms for a credible but “rotational presence” of US forces in the Philippines. A new agreement is expected to be signed by the time US President Barack Obama visits the region for the annual East Asia Summit later this year.

New Partners

As it seeks to rebuild defence ties with the US,the Philippines doesn’t want to rely on the US alone. Manila wants multiple security partnerships with its Asian friends. Overcoming bitter colonial memories,the Philippines is reaching out to Japan. Tokyo has agreed to beef up the coast guard of the Philippines. Manila,in turn,is likely to offer Japan access to its naval facilities. Last week,Manila received the Vietnamese defence minister,Phung Qang Thanh,as part of a new effort to strengthen security cooperation with Hanoi,which also faces the brunt of Chinese naval might in the South China Sea.

The Philippines is also eager for an intensive defence cooperation with India,but the current military exchanges between the two countries are rather limited. If Delhi is serious about gaining strategic influence in Asia,it should be paying a lot more political attention to Manila.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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