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Strengthening ties: The value of enhancing a Philippine-Australia strategic partnership

As the Commonwealth government embarked on one of Australia’s largest and most ambitious naval capability upgrades since Federation following the creation of the AUKUS security partnership, this week Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that China does not fear confrontation with the US in the Indo-Pacific.

As the Commonwealth government embarked on one of Australia’s largest and most ambitious naval capability upgrades since Federation following the creation of the AUKUS security partnership, this week Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that China does not fear confrontation with the US in the Indo-Pacific.

Relations between the US and China are at a low over a range of disagreements including the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, trade, human rights, and Beijing's increasing pressure on Taiwan. The announcement of the AUKUS alliance has been met with mixed reviews from Australia’s Indo-Pacific neighbours and were far from uniform, but, the forward planning initiatives outlined in the Strategic Update has set the nation on course to be an ambitious military player in the region.  

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While Taiwan has been at the forefront of discussion, perhaps striking up a strategic partnership with the island nation of the Philippines could be a key consideration for Australia after the Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin welcomed the new security arrangement, forecasting that the AUKUS alliance will help maintain peace and stability in south-east Asia.  

A BRIEF HISTORY 

A look into US and Philippine history can provide a brief snapshot of how beneficial a strategic partnership would be for Australia in the current geo-political climate. 

Since the Philippines officially became a sovereign nation following the signing of the Treaty of Manila in 1946, the US has maintained links with the south-east Asian littoral state by retaining existing military bases and assets, which the US continues to actively use. 

Backing Secretary Locsin’s position on AUKUS, Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana supported Secretary Locsin’s position by stating that Australia, like the Philippines, has the right to improve its submarine defence capability. 

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The continued US presence in the archipelago and ties with the Philippines are rooted in legacy policies that have been in play for the most part of the 20th century to the present day, a relationship that Australia could leverage. 

REGIONAL NEIGHBOURS  

The idea of the Indo-Pacific as a single region of interest is specifically useful for Australia, because it encompasses all of Australia’s maritime surrounds, according to the RAN Sea Power Review and Analysis.  

Australia’s long-standing support for its Pacific island neighbours, which saw Australia gift vessels to Pacific island countries between 1987 and 1997 under the Pacific Patrol Boat Program (PPBP), has enabled an enduring security co-operation with Pacific countries that covers a broad scope including defence, law enforcement, transnational crime, climate and disaster resilience, border management and human security.  

Since 2001, Australia has provided financial, technical and legal support to Pacific island states to establish their maritime zones, negotiate shared boundaries and submit extended continental shelf claims. 

With Australian support, eight Pacific countries were able to establish their maritime zone limits in national legislation, 10 countries submitted extended continental shelf claims, and nine countries were able to negotiate or amend 15 shared boundary treaties. Defence has stepped up its support for regional countries to conduct co-operation patrols and has enhanced the capability of regional maritime co-ordination. 

The Commonwealth government’s 30-year investment and commitment to supporting its Pacific neighbours is integral to a stable and resilient security environment, following the key challenges that have emerged in the Indo-Pacific, that prompted the formation of the new AUKUS trilateral partnership.  

Continuing the legacy of the PPBP, the succeeding e Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP) has considerable value for Australia and the Pacific region. In contributing to maintaining a free and open IndoPacific, enduring investment in sovereign defence capabilities and boosting the Pacific regional maritime security is key. 

In contrast, the Philippines who filed an arbitration case against China under UNCLOS in January 2013, is still waiting for China to respond accordingly to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitral tribunal ruling that upheld the Philippine case against it in 2016. 

China, has been busy transforming the reefs and atolls in the South China Sea, constructing man-made military-base islands in the disputed waters. It all started in 2012, following China’s forceful assertion of control over the Scarborough Shoal in the Philippine exclusive economic zone and its artificial island-building campaign in the Spratlys in 2013, among a string of violations against Philippine sovereign and maritime rights. 

Under UNCLOS, features like the artificial islands that China has developed have no territorial seas of their own. The US has been exercising its freedom of navigation and overflight rights in the South China Sea to contest China’s unlawful claims and offer support to the south-east Asian littoral state following the ruling. 

COUNTERBALANCE REQUIRED 

Given that the ASEAN states do not possess the military capabilities to maintain the balance of power in the region, the Philippine support for AUKUS and Australia's naval capability to maintain the south-east Asian balance of power is no surprise. 

China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region has prompted Secretary Locsin’s position, noting that he saw AUKUS as a counterbalance against the increasingly aggressive advances of China, as it claims nearly 85 per cent of disputed waters under the so-called nine-dash line.  

According to Secretary Locsin, the reasons behind the Philippines’ support for this trilateral security partnership is due to China’s growing power and influence in the region and notes that US, ‘the main balancer’, is separated from south-east Asia by the Pacific Ocean. 

If China’s belligerent response and the way it has handled its disputes so far, has further affirmed its lack of willingness to accept the current rules-based order.

ENHANCING TIES WITH AUKUS MEMBERS

During a virtual talk at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Secretary Locsin reiterated the Philippines’ support for AUKUS, declaring that Australia should be part of ASEAN as a geographical grouping for regional defence and regional stability.

“What rounds out the circle of security (in Southeast Asia) is the anchor of Australia right underneath,” Secretary Locsin said.

The best expression of the Philippines’ support for AUKUS so far, was the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ invitation to the UK to participate as an observer in the full-scale 2022 Philippine-US annual Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) Exercise.

If the Philippines sees value in the enhancement of a neighbour's capability to project power in south-east Asia to restore and keep the balance of power, rather than destabilise, perhaps it is time Australia takes a look at focusing a little further north.

[Related: Taiwan is not a ‘chess piece’, warns China]

Nastasha Tupas

Nastasha Tupas

Journalist – Defence and Security, Momentum Media

Nastasha is a Journalist at Momentum Media, she reports extensively across veterans affairs, cyber security and geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific. She is a co-author of a book titled The Stories Women Journalists Tell, published by Penguin Random House. Previously, she was a Content Producer at Verizon Media, a Digital Producer for Yahoo! and Channel 7, a Digital Journalist at Sky News Australia, as well as a Website Manager and Digital Producer at SBS Australia. Nastasha started her career in media as a Video Producer and Digital News Presenter at News Corp Australia.

Strengthening ties: The value of enhancing a Philippine-Australia strategic partnership
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