New Delhi ignores chances in Philippines

By Shastri Ramachandaran Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-23 20:50:00

If India's "Look East" policy is remarkable for rapidly going beyond ASEAN to the Asia-Pacific, it is equally remarkable for the conspicuously unremarkable bilateral relations with the Philippines. Not surprisingly, the Philippines is little more than a blip on the radar of India's Ministry of External Affairs.

Why is this English-speaking republic, which has quite a bit in common with India, not a bigger factor in the latter's "Look East" policy? In the 20 years of the "Look East" policy's unraveling, there has been speculation over which Asian country India would choose.

India-Philippine relations have been spectacularly bereft of any defining issue, positive or negative. The best that can be said is that bilateral ties have not been marked by either any jarring or an upbeat note.

There are only two recent occasions when the Philippines made headlines in India. Two months ago, in May, at the height of the South China Sea dispute between China and the Philippines, New Delhi urged "both countries to exercise restraint and resolve the issue diplomatically according to principles of international law."

The message was seen as a sign of India being alert to tensions in the South China Sea, where it is involved in oil and gas explorations off Vietnam and, as a signal to the Southeast Asian countries of its sensitivity to issues affecting them.

There was a time though, from 2004 to 2009, when there was a series of high-visibility interactions and the possibility of counterterrorism becoming an important area of defense cooperation. Although regular foreign policy dialogues have been held since 1994, it was only in March 2004 that the first India-Philippines Security Dialogue was held in Manila. The last one was in 2009.

The last state visit of an Indian president to the Philippines was by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2006. Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the Philippines in 2007 and held bilateral talks with then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, he had gone there for the ASEAN and East Asia summits. The only other occasion an Indian prime minister touched down in the Philippines was when Indira Gandhi made a stopover in Manila in 1981.

There are many agreements, treaties, MoUs, dialogue forums and working groups between India and the Philippines. While this may be taken to underscore the potential and, therefore, the challenges and opportunities ahead, for deeper cooperation, the fact remains that there have been no initiatives to bring a buzz or add spark to the relationship.

The author is an independent political and international affairs commentator based in New Delhi.


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