OPINION

The Manila envelope

India’s financial aid to the Philippines to fight the Islamic State signals a reworking of its Asean outreach

In a significant development, India has decided to provide a financial assistance of $5,00,000 (Rs. 3.2 crore) to the Philippines to aid its fight against the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated terror groups in the troubled Mindanao province. This is the first time India is sending aid to another nation to help it fight terrorism, thereby becoming an important marker in New Delhi’s attempts to burnish its credentials as an emerging security provider to the wider Asian region.

For a long time, India has been trying to convince the world that it remains one of the worst victims of terrorism. But its focus has largely been on Pakistan’s use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. And where India viewed Pakistan as the epicentre of terrorism, the world remained reluctant to put adequate pressure on a nation that was seen as a close ally in its ‘war against terrorism’. However, under the Narendra Modi government, India has taken a tough stand on Pakistan’s support for terrorism by underscoring its concerns at various international fora. In this context, India’s support to Manila shows a new-found sense of urgency in standing shoulder to shoulder with other victims of terror, even when the source of the problem is different.

Recapturing Marawi

The siege of Marawi, about 800 km south of the capital Manila, began in May when the Philippine security forces launched an offensive to capture Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the IS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf group. Despite the military offensive, militants remain in control of Marawi which they view as key to their efforts to create an IS province. The civilian toll has been rising, with more than 500 people killed and nearly 4,00,000 civilians displaced. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a hard line, vowing to “crush” the militants and declaring martial law over the entire southern Philippines. Yet, the end of the conflict is not in sight.

India has expressed its concerns at the situation and used this crisis to enhance its anti-terror and deradicalisation partnership with the Philippines. India is also conducting cybersecurity training for the Philippine security forces, focusing on deradicalisation. And with this financial aid, India has emerged as the largest donor in efforts to contain the crisis.

China has provided 15 million pesos (approximately $3,00,000) in aid compared to India’s 25 million pesos ($5,00,000). With the recent fall of Mosul and the fight for Raqqa intensifying by the day, there are suggestions that the days of the IS in its current shape are numbered. The IS of today may appear to be a pale shadow of its past menace when at its peak, since the end of 2014 through 2015, it controlled territory comprising roughly 1,10,000 sq. km, across both Syria and Iraq. But the underlying forces that gave rise to its emergence in West Asia remain as potent as ever and the ideological attraction of its ideology shows no sign of fading. In many ways, it is imperative for India to take a more proactive role in the global struggle against the IS.

India’s engagement with the Philippines is also key to underscoring its growing role in Southeast Asia where China’s rise has already created serious challenges for the wider region. The regional states are looking at external balancers at a time when America’s commitment to regional security has come under a scanner under the Donald Trump administration. The regional security architecture there is under strain as China’s divide-and-rule policy has made it difficult for regional states to put up a united front. Many states have suggested that India needs to play a larger role. As India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) celebrate 25 years of their partnership this year, it is a politically opportune moment to upgrade India’s regional profile.

The Philippines has also been trying to recalibrate its ties with China, under stress because of a suit brought by Manila to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague challenging Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea. Though Manila won the case last year, it has not been able to push Beijing to moderate its stance on the maritime dispute. Meanwhile, Mr. Duterte visited China last October and signed deals worth $24 billion in infrastructure investment and loan pledges. India cannot easily match China’s growing economic profile but it has other means to build partnership with a very important region in its foreign policy matrix. The recent outreach to Manila is an important step in that direction. Hopefully, it won’t be the last.

Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and professor of international relations at King’s College London

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