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Revitalizing Philippine-Australian security partnership in a changing Indo-Pacific Region


In the past few months, defense and foreign affairs analysts, journalists, diplomats, and politicians have observed the Marcos administration’s efforts to revitalize the Philippine-US alliance. President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. considered a close security relationship with the United States as necessary because, based on the experience of the immediately preceding Duterte administration, there is no guarantee that more intimate economic relations with China would mitigate its coercive and expansionist behavior in the South China Sea. Marcos Jr. prioritized the maintenance of healthy and vibrant security ties with the US, which marks a departure from his predecessor, President Rodrigo Duterte, who initially tried to unravel the Philippine-US alliance to minimize Manila’s dependence on Washington and diversify the country’s security relations to include revisionist states such as China and Russia.

In August 2022, Marcos Jr. warmly welcomed US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. More significantly, he allowed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to boost its ties with the US armed services. In late September 2022, the Philippines and US armed services held the annual Mutual Defense and Security Engagement Boards meeting in the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, USA. The two sides agreed to ensure continued robust military-to-military relations between the two armed forces as both sides agreed to hold over 500 joint activities in 2023. These activities will include exercises, training, and capability-building in maritime security, combatting terrorism and transnational crime, cyber security, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief (HADR). This will mark a 75%-increase from the more than 300 annual military engagements the two allies conducted in 2022 that ranged in size and scope from the huge Philippine-US Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) joint military exercise, to port visits, to the exchange of Subject Matter Experts (SME) for table-top-exercises. Early this year, the AFP announced that four more bases would become Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites where US forces cannot construct military facilities for joint use by Filipino and American troops.

Unfortunately, the dramatic improvements in the Philippine-US alliance seem to have made people forget that the Philippines also has meaningful security partnerships with like-minded middle powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

Australian Foreign Minister and Senator Penny Wong’s four-day visit to the Philippines last week reminded Filipinos and Australians alike that to achieve a common goal of peace and prosperity for these two nations, the Philippines and Australia should work with like-minded security partners. She met Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo to discuss issues of mutual interest, such as defense, security partnerships, development cooperation, trade and investment, and people-to-people ties. She stated that the Philippines and Australia have a long-standing security partnership. She added, however, that an intended outcome of her visit to the Philippines will be “to progress the uplifting of our relationship from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership.”

THE PHILIPPINES’ MOST EXTENDED AND MOST RELIABLE SECURITY PARTNERThe 1995 Philippine-Australia Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperative Activities provides the legal basis for Philippine-Australian security relations. It enables the Australian Defense Force (ADF) and the AFP to undertake several defense-related activities in the holding of mutually beneficial cooperative defense activities such as the MTA LUMBAS (2001), the First Philippines-Australia Maritime Surveillance Exercise (Marsuvex), and the Australian-hosted multilateral Fleet Concentration Period Exercise KAKADU. Aside from these military exercises, there are regular exchange visits by Filipino and Australian defense and high-ranking military officials to boost confidence-building measures and common intelligence exchanges on various security issues.

Australia extended immediate and urgent assistance to the AFP during the Battle of Marawi City. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) deployed two AP-3C Orion aircraft to provide surveillance and reconnaissance support to the AFP’s combat operation against Muslim militants who took control of the city. Signal and photographic intelligence provided by the American and Australian reconnaissance planes enabled the AFP to deploy its FA-50s fighter planes and OV-10 ground attack planes to launch surgical airstrikes on the ISIS’ positions in the city. During the fighting, Australia also considered sending ADF personnel to the Philippines to advise and assist the AFP in its counter-terrorism campaign against Islamic militants — something that the ADF had been doing in Iraq.

In the aftermath of the battle of Marawi City, Australia looked at further collaboration and capacity-building work with the Philippines and other regional partners on fostering cooperation among regional coast guards to tighten border control in the Sulu Sea. This was to limit the movement of money, technology, and fighters to extremist groups in the Southern Philippines.

FROM COMPREHENSIVE TO A STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPTo show Canberra’s seriousness in uplifting its security relations with the Philippines from a comprehensive to a strategic partnership, Foreign Minister Wong announced initiatives to enhance maritime cooperation and more considerable official development assistance to the Philippines in 2023 and 2024. She said that maritime cooperation initiatives include technical assistance and capacity building for the Philippine Coast Guard; transfer of equipment, skills, and technology to improve maritime domain awareness and marine protection; and assistance to mitigate the oil spill’s environmental impact off Mindoro.

She also raised the prospect of Australia joining the Philippines, Japan, and the US in exercising freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. She added that Canberra is committed to continuing its long-standing naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Finally, she discussed with Secretary Manalo the potential trilateral security cooperation between the Philippines, Japan, and Australia. Tokyo and Canberra coordinated their security assistance to the Philippines during the Duterte Administration when both middle powers became concerned over former President Duterte’s failed efforts to wean the Philippines away from the US and gravitate toward China. She announced that Australia is willing to work “with the Philippines and other parties, other nations to help shape the region.”

Our friendship and security partnership with Australia — one of the countries most trusted by Filipinos — is also something to be cherished.

Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro is a trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

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