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Can the Philippines and Australia Elevate Their Partnership to a Strategic Level?

19 Aug 2019
By Mark Manantan
Image displaying avenues of cybersecurity. Source: Ecole polytechnique, Flickr,

The Philippines and Australia are both equally vulnerable to cyberattacks and could benefit in engaging in a strategic partnership to solidify their respective national cyber security. 

Before his departure for Japan in the highly anticipated Group of 20 (G20) Summit, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered his first foreign policy speech echoing Australia’s balancing act amid the ongoing global power contest between the US and China. Morrison urged the two superpowers to diffuse the escalating tensions for the sake of global interest and warned about the collateral damage if such strategic competition turns adversarial.

In the same speech Morrison called upon Australia’s partners and allies in the region, namely Japan, India, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea to work closely based on shared challenges to achieve common interests. But nowhere to be found in Morrison’s remarks is Australia’s fellow US ally and the democratic state of Philippines. 

Compared to other Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, such as Vietnam and Indonesia who have acceded to become Australia’s strategic partners, the Philippines remains at a comprehensive level. 

Recent developments in the context of the Philippines and Australia relations in the last three years could have impeded the possibility for the potential upgrade in their bilateral relationship. What strikes at the heart of such stagnation is the contentious view of Australia towards the Philippine’s alarming human rights cases exemplified by President Rodrigo Duterte’s highly controversial War on Drugs, the on-going assault to press freedom, the continuing persecution of Duterte’s critic, as well as the deportation of Australian Human Rights advocate Sister Patricia Fox in 2018. A few weeks ago, Australia also joined 18 other countries supporting a resolution for the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the Duterte government’s drug war killings. 

Advancing the Philippines-Australia relations toward a strategic partnership might not be pragmatic in the short to medium-term due to obvious disagreements and tension over democratic values and the rule of law. However, such differences must not preclude the two American allies in working towards shared strategic priorities, as security threats are emerging as well as evolving rapidly. Cybersecurity is a critical area that offers improved prospects for the two countries to deepen their existing collaboration.

Two years since launching its International Cyber Engagement Strategy, Australia has gradually positioned cybersecurity as an important dimension to its foreign policy agenda. Australia continues to shape the debate in ASEAN concerning applicable laws and norms in cyberspace, strengthening cybercrime prevention and promoting inclusivity through its cyber policy dialogue. 

Such a multilateral approach can be well-adopted specifically in the context of the bilateral relationship between the Philippines and Australia. Policy discussions and capacity building engagements are key initiatives to achieve this. Through their inaugural track “1.5/2 dialogue,” the two countries could start laying the groundwork on a full range of cybersecurity-related issues—cyberwarfare, cyberespionage, fake news, disinformation—as well as co-developing national policies and/or legal framework to address cyber crimes and cyber-terrorism.  

In the area of capability building, Australia and the Philippines can conduct cybersecurity drills in light of any cyberattack to critical infrastructures. Furthermore, as the Philippine government continues to have a capacity deficit in cyber-forensics, the exchange of best practices, techniques, and procedures shall also be beneficial to bolster the Department of Information and Communications and Technology’s Cybersecurity Division in detecting persistent and malicious activities. Conversely, another practical area of collaboration is cyberthreat information-sharing via a national Computer Emergency Response Team or a CERT, to facilitate CERT coordination between the two countries.

Under the Cyber Affairs Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or DFAT, Australia also continues to advocate for inclusive collaboration by embracing the vital roles of the academia, private sector, and civil society groups. In the Philippines, Australia has partnered with local data privacy advocates.

As tech-companies race toward developing artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics, the central role of utilising data in driving such technologies has become a human rights issue. Furthermore, as the Philippines continues to become one of the biggest victims of data breaches in the ASEAN region, data protection is not solely a privacy issue but one that falls under cybersecurity. 

By strengthening its partnerships with Philippine-based civil society groups along with academic institutions, Australia’s Cyber Affairs could launch an Information Education and Communications campaign that targets the broader public regarding the fundamental value of regulatory laws on data privacy and protection. This shall encourage not only government agencies but also private businesses and organisations to strengthen their resolve in adhering to the National Data Privacy Act of 2012 in protecting personal identifiable data.

Through its various partners, such as the Australian Cyber Security Network or AustCyber, Australia is also engaging leading players in the tech-industry in transforming its cybersecurity sector as an economic and investment powerhouse. AustCyber is also cultivating indigenous talent by infusing funding and training through start-up competitions. The engagement also has a regional focus through Australian Trade and Department of Foreign and Trade (DFAT) DFAT’s Innovation Exchange that seek to promote Australia’s cybersecurity industry.

As the Philippines startup scene continues to thrive, there is an opportunity among Australians and Filipino investors to expand on-going collaboration from fintech to cybersecurity. The recent signing of the Philippine Innovation Act is expected to boost the Philippines’ global competitiveness in human capital, digital economy and global value chain. 

Likewise, as the Philippines continues to be one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia amid sluggish regional growth, its companies are becoming even more vulnerable to economic losses caused by cyber threats amounting to US$305 billion. It was estimated that in the coming years, companies in the Philippines are expected to ramp up their cybersecurity investments by an estimate of US$22.8 billion to deter cyber-attacks—an opportunity that the Australian cybersecurity industry must seize.

Amidst diverging views on issues relating to human rights, elevating the Philippine-Australia relations to a strategic partnership might not be feasible in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, achieving shared strategic priorities in the realm of cybersecurity compels the two US allies to deepen their existing cooperation.

Mark Manantan is a research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and a research affiliate of Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress. He is the founder of Bryman Media.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.