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Advancing defense cooperation with credible partners in the Indo-Pacific

BW FILE PHOTO

The first Ministerial Forum for Indo-Pacific Cooperation, held in Paris earlier this year, highlighted the global commitment to promote peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. It provided a platform for European Union (EU) members, Indo-Pacific states, and ASEAN members to advance strategic cooperation and engagement.

On this occasion, the EU Ambassador to the Philippines Luc Véron and French Ambassador Michèle Boccoz reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“We look forward to continue working with the Philippines, ASEAN, and other partners in the Indo-Pacific in order to transform regional challenges into opportunities for deeper cooperation for the benefit of our peoples,” they said in a statement.

The gathering of foreign ministers demonstrates the increasing interest of the international community in the Indo-Pacific region. As the region’s economic and geopolitical significance grows, so does the willingness of states to increase their role and readjust their policies.

Parallel to its strategic value, the Indo-Pacific confronts an intensifying network of security challenges, particularly in the maritime domain. As a response, key players such as the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom have pushed for their respective defense strategies to ensure the stability of the region’s overall security architecture.

From the European Union, France was the first member state to declare its Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, which eventually translated into a formal document in 2022. Germany and The Netherlands also made similar policy pronouncements, while the rest of the EU states contributed to the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific that was published in September 2021. Through this strategy, the EU aims to provide a direction to the regional organization’s strategic engagement with partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Philippines.

The expansion and deepening of the collective effort to uphold a rules-based international order allows key actors to become more credible partners in the region. While security issues continue to challenge states, they also provide various opportunities for states to foster multilateral and strategic cooperation.

Expanding and improving military capabilities is crucial in responding to security risks in the Indo-Pacific that are further exacerbated by maritime disputes. As a country surrounded by strategic waters, including the contested West Philippine Sea, the Philippines must leverage its existing bilateral relations with states such as the European Union to enhance its capabilities to protect the West Philippine Sea and contribute to the overall stability of the Indo-Pacific.

The EU strategy includes expanding its coordinated maritime presence in the region by conducting joint naval exercises and promoting maritime domain awareness. Currently, the Critical Maritime Routes program in the Indo-Pacific project is implemented in partnership with the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard.

Consistent with this effort, a key pillar of France’s engagements in the region is the defense and security sector. With the maritime sector’s growth, France shares an interest in maritime security with the Philippines, providing both countries a chance to advance their defense partnership.

In this domain, the EU, through France, can be a credible partner and ally in revolutionizing the Philippines’ defense posture through the acquisition of new naval assets for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The need for innovations in the Philippine defense system is reflected in the modernization program of the AFP as it enters its third phase.

The Horizon 3 of the Revised AFP Modernization Act will run from 2023 to 2027. With this, the country’s decision-makers must assert the need to upgrade the country’s military arsenal. As a defense partner, France has already expressed its support for the Philippines’ long-term modernization goals.

To modernize the AFP, the Philippine government must consider acquiring new naval equipment, particularly a submarine force. This modernization initiative will significantly enhance the AFP’s surveillance and patrol activities and further improve its defense and deterrence capabilities.

The Philippine Navy is already on track in its preparations as it formed a Submarine Group in 2015. This initiative focuses on capacitating military personnel in the maintenance and operation of submarines. The French Navy has already offered to assist in these activities.

The commitment to hold joint exercises and share expertise in submarine operations will increase confidence between the Philippines and France and enhance their Navy’s interoperability. This initiative fulfills the EU’s goal of supporting partners in the Indo-Pacific in their capacity to ensure maritime security.

As the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific continue to shape the shared future of states, fostering multilateral cooperation is crucial to addressing destabilizing forces in the region, particularly in the maritime domain.

For the Philippines, its engagements must have the national interest as the guiding principle in its independent foreign policy.

Given the mutual interests in the Indo-Pacific, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. and his administration must continue to advance the Philippines’ defense cooperation with credible partners such as the European Union and other like-minded states to address security threats in the region effectively. This will enable the Philippines to build a robust and reliable defense posture as well as build its capacity as a reliable partner in the Indo-Pacific.

Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the president of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

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