This is part of the Indian Navy’s operational deployment to the South China Sea region
The Indian Navy's Eastern Fleet reached Manila's harbour earlier this week, marking the start of a crucial visit aimed at bolstering maritime ties between India and the Philippines. The fleet, led by Rear Admiral Rajesh Dhankha, comprises three vessels: INS Delhi, INS Shakti, and INS Kiltan. Their arrival on Sunday (May 19, 2024) underscores a deepening relationship and strategic cooperation between the two nations amid rising regional tensions.

The Indian Navy’s operational deployment to the South China Sea includes this pivotal visit, demonstrating India's strategic maritime interests in the region. This deployment aims to enhance naval cooperation through a series of planned activities, such as professional exchanges, sports competitions, cultural events, and community outreach programs. These activities are designed to foster goodwill and mutual understanding between the naval forces of India and the Philippines.

The centerpiece of this visit is the Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX), a joint exercise with the Philippine Navy. The MPX aims to enhance naval collaboration through extensive training and real-life operational activities, reflecting both nations' commitment to maintaining regional stability and security.

The visit comes at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, particularly between China and the Philippines. The Scarborough Shoal, a critical feature within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), is a focal point of these tensions. The Shoal is strategically located near major shipping lanes and is a traditional fishing ground. Despite the Philippines’ legitimate claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China's expansive claims over the South China Sea have led to numerous conflicts, with an international tribunal ruling against China's claims.

India and the Philippines have maintained diplomatic relations since November 1949. Over the decades, this relationship has evolved with increased naval and coastguard interactions, participation in specialized military training, and exchanges at higher defense educational institutions. This enduring engagement signifies a shared dedication to enhancing defense and strategic cooperation amidst a shifting security landscape.

The Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet plays a pivotal role in this bilateral relationship. Established in 1971, the fleet is primarily responsible for safeguarding India’s eastern seaboard. Headquartered in Visakhapatnam, the Eastern Fleet has been instrumental in numerous operations, including the decisive Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. It regularly participates in significant multinational exercises like MALABAR, showcasing India's blue-water capabilities.

The Eastern Fleet’s visit to Manila is part of a broader operational deployment in the South China Sea, an area of immense strategic importance. The fleet features state-of-the-art vessels, including Sindhughosh-class submarines and Shivalik-class stealth frigates. Notably, INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear-powered submarine, operates under the fleet’s command, exemplifying India’s advanced naval capabilities.

The Indian Navy’s presence in the region is not only a display of military prowess but also a testament to its commitment to regional stability and humanitarian efforts. The Eastern Fleet has been at the forefront of disaster relief operations across the Indian Ocean, extending assistance to nations in times of need.

Building Friendships Through Engagement

During their stay in Manila, Indian and Philippine naval personnel will engage in a variety of professional activities, including Subject Matter Expert Exchange (SMEE) sessions, sports events, cross-deck visits, and cultural exchanges. These interactions are designed to foster camaraderie and enhance mutual understanding between the two navies.

In addition to these engagements, collaborative community outreach programs will see naval personnel from both countries working together on projects that benefit local communities. 

The arrival of INS Delhi, INS Shakti, and INS Kiltan in Manila is a significant event that highlights the growing maritime cooperation between India and the Philippines. Amidst a backdrop of regional tensions, this visit underscores the importance of strategic partnerships and collaborative efforts in maintaining regional peace and stability. As the two navies engage in joint exercises and community activities, they reaffirm their commitment to a shared vision of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.