Free and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPPartnershipsSouth AsiaSoutheast Asia

India backs Philippines in South China Sea, increases engagement

Maria T. Reyes

India has called for adherence to an international tribunal’s 2016 ruling that supports the Philippine’s sovereign rights to areas within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, invalidating sweeping claims by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to virtually the entire South China Sea.

Aligning with the court’s interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an example of New Delhi’s increased security engagement with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries. India’s position is reflected in a joint statement with the Philippines released by India’s Ministry of External Affairs in late June 2023 after bilateral discussions between Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, and Enrique Manalo, the Philippine’s secretary of foreign affairs, on topics ranging from security to trade to space. The release noted “the expanding scope of India-Philippines ties” and depicted the two Indo-Pacific nations as vibrant, youthful democracies with fast-growing economies.

“They [Jaishankar and Manalo] underlined the need for peaceful settlement of disputes and for adherence to international law, especially the UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea in this regard,” the statement read. The PRC has rejected the decision from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Netherlands.

An Indian destroyer, assisted by a tugboat, maneuvers in Manila’s international port. TED ALJIBE/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Shambhu Kumaran, India’s ambassador to Manila, repeated New Delhi’s position on July 12, the seventh anniversary of the arbitration ruling.

“All countries have an obligation to respect international law, but perhaps bigger countries have a larger obligation to respect international law,” he said.

While India is more engaged in Southeast Asia, said Manila-based geopolitical analyst Don McLain Gill, “it remains pragmatically cautious towards provoking the security architecture of the South China Sea to a critical degree.”

India does not want to appear that it is meddling in the international affairs of the region, he told FORUM.
Gill said there also were concerns that “if India decides to engage more militarily in the South China Sea, a similar situation can also occur vis-à-vis China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean.”

“However, this does not mean that India will not continue to broaden the scope of its support and strategic engagements with Southeast Asian states like the Philippines,” he said.

New Delhi has recently strengthened security partnerships with Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam. Its relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2022, and an inaugural India-ASEAN maritime exercise took place in 2023, Gill noted.

“The government of [Indian] Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to illustrate India’s unwavering intent to play a larger and more proactive role as a responsible security and development partner in Southeast Asia, particularly in the realm of defense cooperation,” he said.

The Philippines has bought India’s BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, which complement Manila’s South China Sea defenses. New Delhi has also offered a line of credit to support the Philippine’s defense needs and will send a defense attaché to Manila to help strengthen the security partnership.

Beijing has referred to New Delhi’s support of the 2016 international tribunal’s decision and recent support for Manila as “an attempt to test where the red line is for China.”

Qiang Feng, a scholar at the Chinese Tsinghua University’s National Strategy Institute, suggested in a China Military Online editorial that India’s South China Sea position is perilous.


Maria T. Reyes is a FORUM contributor reporting from Manila, Philippines.

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