The push for deepening relations between the Philippines and Australia points to the looming tensions between the US and China. As natural partners, there is much room for growth across security, economic, and political domains.
In her visit to the Philippines in May, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong sought to “progress the uplifting of our relationship from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership.” The strategic partnership aims to elevate ties between the Philippines and Australia that goes beyond friendship, but short of forming a legally-binding relationship such as a military alliance.
Wong’s announcement of a strategic partnership seeks to bolster security cooperation. The 1995 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperative Defence Activities provides the policy direction, coordination, and monitoring of various security initiatives, which notably includes training of members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Australian Defense Force (ADF) facilities. The MOU has since paved the way for the 2007 Status of Forces Agreement, which provides legal guarantees to Australian forces conducting joint counter-terrorism exercises in the Philippines. It also commits the ADF to advise the AFP on logistics and acquisition policy. Capitalising on these agreements, Wong also presented Australia’s new maritime cooperation initiatives with the Philippines that includes technical assistance and capacity building for the Philippine Coast Guard to improve maritime domain awareness and marine protection.
Both countries are expected to benefit from the strategic partnership. Aside from more military assistance and capacity building, the Philippines can continue relying on Australia to promote freedom of navigation while denouncing China’s violation of the rule of law in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Australia’s endorsement to elevate ties with the Philippines reinforces its middle power diplomatic agenda to promote normative values and broad, inclusive of security interests. It also provides opportunities for Australia to deepen trade with the Philippines and diversify and grow its market reach, particularly after China’s import bans in 2020. The partnership also fits perfectly into Australia’s regional initiative to develop a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN (signed in 2021), underscoring the value accorded to its Asian neighbors, outside the focus on the Pacific neighborhood, which has long been a priority in Australian foreign policy.
Establishing a strategic partnership between the Philippines and Australia comes at a very opportune time given China’s growing belligerence and America’s renewed influence in the Asia Pacific. For Manila, China’s illegal maritime activities within the West Philippine Sea and associated maritime boundaries as laid out under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea poses a threat to its territorial sovereignty. For Canberra, China’s sanctions against Australian goods and alleged interference in the country’s domestic politics prove that a measured and collective push back is required to restrict the ability for the Chinese to coercively and covertly undermine national and regional interests.
Meanwhile, the US seeks to maintain its leading role in the region, which is geared toward upholding international legal standards and norms of governance. To do so, the US is putting diplomatic and military weight behind partners in the region, with the Philippines and Australia as integral parts in its alliance network system that underscores a convergence of security interests.
However, China has viewed such collaboration as part of a larger geopolitical agenda spearheaded by the US to curtail its power. The Chinese Foreign Ministry warns against forming anti-China cliques, reminding regional neighbors to “see clearly their own interests… and [that they] are not reduced to being anti-China tools of the U.S.”
Such perceptions are reinforced by US-led security initiatives with the Philippines and Australia. Washington’s expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Arrangement (EDCA) with the Philippines and the submarine deal with Australia under the trilateral AUKUS security pact (along with the UK) serves such suspicions. The Chinese government further suspects that the four new EDCA sites in the Philippines and Australia’s nuclear-powered attack submarines can be employed to curtail possible Chinese attacks against Taiwan or thwart possible military confrontation in the South China Sea.
Because of these security arrangements with the US, the Philippines and Australia’s strategic partnership may reinforce distrust in their relationships with China. This is highly probable for the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as he continues to deviate from the previous administration’s appeasement policy towards the Chinese government. The partnership is also likely to raise further Chinese resentment towards Australia just as both parties are seeking to stabilise economic relations.
It makes strategic sense for the Philippines and Australia to elevate their partnership given the convergence of their national interests and the commonalities of their security affiliations and defense policies. While their long-standing cooperation is robust enough to stand independently, both parties will have to consider the uncertainties of US-China rivalry in establishing further strategic partnerships.
Andrea Chloe Wong holds a PHD in Political Science at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. She formerly served as a Senior Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Philippines.
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