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6 September 2023

With Christian Vicedo

The View from the Philippines

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese is due to visit Manila this week to discuss defence and maritime security cooperation with Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The visit comes at an auspicious time. The two countries have increasingly been looking to cooperate on resisting China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. This cooperation has taken on heightened urgency in recent weeks, following a tense maritime encounter between China and the Philippines.

On 22 August 2023, Chinese coastguard ships attempted to block vessels chartered by the Philippine government that were resupplying BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded warship serving as a Philippine outpost in the South China Sea. The attempted blockade was the latest in a series of Chinese activities to enforce its “indisputable sovereignty” in the Spratly Islands. Despite being within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, China has deemed BRP Sierra Madre an “illegally stranded” warship.

The United States, Australia and other like-minded nations have expressed support for the Philippines by calling out China for its “dangerous and destabilizing” activities. They have voiced strong opposition to Beijing’s unilateral attempt to change the international status quo. Hence, notwithstanding Beijing’s promise of investments and infrastructure loans to Manila and its threat of trade bans against Canberra, China’s conduct has led the Philippines and Australia towards deeper security cooperation.

The discussions in Manila this week may lead to a plan for Australia and the Philippines to conduct multilateral maritime patrols in the South China Sea with the United States and Japan. The joint naval drills among the four countries in late August gave a strong indication of possible maritime cooperation. Australia and the Philippines confirmed that month that they will conduct joint patrols in the “South China Sea/West Philippines Sea”, and the United States and Japan are expected to participate.

In pursuit of interoperability, Australia and the Philippines commenced their first bilateral military exercise on 14 August. The exercise featured aerial assault and amphibious drills in the strategic locations of Palawan and Zambales, both of which face the South China Sea. The defence ministers of both countries – Richard Marles and Gilberto Teodoro Jr – attended as observers. According to Australia’s ambassador to the Philippines, Hae Kyong Yu, such exercises are meant to put “words into action”.

The realisation of a strategic partnership between the Philippines and Australia may also serve as a pillar of cooperation among AUKUS and Quad countries in the Indo-Pacific. The Philippines conveyed its support for AUKUS last year and has noted the assurance from AUKUS partners that they will not undermine “regional stability”. During his state visit to the United States in May, Marcos welcomed the Quad’s commitment to a “rules-based region with ASEAN at the centre”.

The Philippines’ move to seek more robust defence partnerships with countries such as the United States and Australia has led to speculation about a possible shift in Marcos’s “neutral foreign policy” to one that fully supports the US in its geopolitical rivalry with China. However, Philippine neutrality is likely to continue.

First, despite China’s sustained “harassment” of Philippine vessels, Marcos has underscored that Manila has not shifted “away” from China and that the relationship will not be defined by “differences” but by common interests. He said in June that the Philippines–China relationship is still “evolving” and “hasn’t changed in any fundamental sense”. Notably, Marcos expressed his intention to strengthen partnerships with China on tourism, agriculture, trade, investment and infrastructure.

Second, the two countries maintain formal and informal channels to ensure they can peacefully discuss their differences in the South China Sea. The Philippines’ support for the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism with China – a process that started in 2017 – demonstrates that it remains committed to addressing maritime issues through dialogue instead of “coercion and intimidation”. Former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte reported to Marcos earlier this month on the outcome of his meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, and provided Marcos with “good pieces of advice”.

Finally, the Philippine Senate has powers to check Philippine foreign policy towards China. Earlier this month, it adopted two resolutions condemning the harassment of Philippine fishermen and persistent incursions in the West Philippine Sea by Chinese coastguard and militia vessels. In the previous months, however, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairperson Imee Marcos expressed concerns about the locations of Philippine military bases to be accessed by US forces as part of a defence cooperation agreement, as well as the duration of visits and the number of foreign troops in the Philippines. She also raised valid concerns about the absence of “anti-missile” and “anti-aircraft” capabilities that the country can use, should tensions escalate. Clearly, domestic political forces can influence Marcos’s foreign policy.

While the Philippines will continue to strengthen its defence cooperation with the United States, Australia and other partners, Marcos is likely to maintain his neutrality concerning China’s rivalry with the US. But the visit of Albanese is crucial in reaffirming the importance for the Philippines of a strategic partnership with Australia as a means of addressing China’s challenge to the rules-based international order, even as Manila and Canberra seek to compartmentalise their security and economic relations with Beijing.

Christian Vicedo is a security analyst based in Manila and was previously a senior defence researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines.

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The eighteenth issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines Australia’s evolving ties with the United States as the power balance in Asia changes and as Washington continues to face bitter domestic divides.

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