Philippines-Australia strategic partnership in an era of geopolitical realignment

The recent visit of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr to Australia demonstrates the resolve of the Philippines to solidify its strategic partnerships with like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific region.
Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (right) shakes hands with Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr ahead of the family photo during the 50th ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne on 5 March 2024. (William West/AFP)
Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (right) shakes hands with Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr ahead of the family photo during the 50th ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne on 5 March 2024. (William West/AFP)

The recent state visit of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr to Australia marking the 50th anniversary of Australia-ASEAN relations was more than a ceremonial commemoration of the two countries’ longstanding ties. The visit underscores the undercurrents of geopolitical tensions, strategic interests and strategic imperatives required in navigating the highly turbulent Indo-Pacific region.

In his speech to the Australian parliament, President Marcos Jr issued a veiled caution, alluding to the considerable pressures bearing down on the region without explicitly naming China. He stressed the vital role of the Philippines-Australia strategic partnership in managing threats to the rule of law, stability and peace in the region.

Echoing the urgency of collective action in the face of looming threats to regional stability, the president articulated a stark vision, highlighting the precarious nature of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. His remarks also reflected a profound acknowledgement of the shared destinies that bind Australia to the region and Canberra’s evolution into an integral component of the regional fabric.

Manila’s strategy to expose China’s actions in the disputed South China Sea marks a significant policy shift.

Opting to strengthen ties with the US

In a separate address at the Lowy Institute, the president challenged the prevailing (and narrow) prism of geopolitical polarity between China and the US. Instead, he emphasised that regional countries have agency and can engage constructively with both powers. At the same time, he highlighted the necessity of addressing “aggressive, unilateral, illegal and unlawful actions”, which are “attacks against the rule of international law”.

In foreign policy, Marcos represents a stark departure from the appeasement policy of his predecessor. While Rodrigo Duterte was seen aligning closely with, and some critics argue, overly accommodating to Beijing, the current president has opted to strengthen ties with the US, the Philippines’ sole treaty ally.

Under Duterte, Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea — or areas of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) — remained largely unaddressed. Under President Marcos Jr, the Philippines has initiated a “transparency initiative” in the West Philippine Sea. Manila’s strategy to expose China’s actions in the disputed South China Sea marks a significant policy shift.

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A Philippine supply boat sails near a Chinese Coast Guard ship during a resupply mission for Filipino troops stationed at a grounded warship in the South China Sea, on 4 October 2023. (Adrian Portugal/Reuters)

It is in the contentious waters of the South China Sea where the Philippines’ navigation of territorial disputes becomes emblematic of broader regional complexities. The administration’s balancing act — veering between diplomatic engagement and assertive posturing — mirrors the delicate diplomacy required to manage relations with traditional allies like the US, Australia and Japan, and regional powers such as China, a major economic partner and dominant force in the territorial disputes, along with ASEAN nations, with whom it shares both common interests and challenges.

Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 targets the Philippines for expanded trade, particularly in the green technology and digital fields.

Seeking to act like a middle power in the region

The Philippines is showing promising signs of asserting itself as a middle power in the region, advocating for international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the final and binding South China Sea Arbitration Award of 2016 that challenged China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

But any foreign government’s engagement with Marcos Jr also forces a confrontation with his family’s chequered past during the martial law period where democratic values and human rights were undermined. During his address to the parliament, protesters convened outside Parliament House. Australian Senator Janet Rice prominently displayed signs condemning human rights violations in the Philippines.

As the geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific undergoes a significant transformation, the strategic partnership between the Philippines and Australia anchored in shared democratic values, mutual security concerns as well as economic and defence collaboration, has remained robust and resilient.

Australia has a long history of defence cooperation with the Philippines. In 2012, the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia was ratified by the Philippines. The agreement, which is reciprocal in nature, provides a comprehensive legal framework for the presence of one country’s forces in the other. In 2015, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to Manila resulted in the signing of the Joint Declaration on Australia-The Philippines Comprehensive Partnership. In November 2023, the Philippines and Australia conducted joint sea and air patrols in the South China Sea. This underscored the growing and deepening strategic and defence partnership between the two countries. During his state visit, President Marcos Jr and Australian Prime Minister Albanese signed new memoranda of understanding enhancing cooperation on maritime, cyber and critical technology.

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Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong (right) and Philippines' Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo (left) inspect a display before the opening of the Australia-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Melbourne on 4 March 2024. (Photo by William West/AFP)

Australia’s relationship with the Philippines, whil­­­­e focused on maritime security, has potential for broader cooperation. Economic ties remain limited due to mismatched interests and similar resource exports. However, Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 targets the Philippines for expanded trade, particularly in the green technology and digital fields. Australia’s trade relationship with the Philippines is underpinned by the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), with the goal of facilitating a more liberal and transparent regional market and investment regimes.

The resilience of this close bond will hinge on a shared, principled and sustained commitment to peace and stability as well as democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

A question of balance

The Philippines’ intricate ballet with external powers, notably the oscillation between the US and China, illustrates the nuanced strategic calculus Manila currently employs. This poses significant implications for Australia. As Manila balances its relationships with Washington and Beijing, Canberra must navigate its own relations with these major powers, ensuring that its economic, security, and strategic interests are protected while fostering a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

President Marcos Jr warned that the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific are at risk, emphasising the need for collective action to tackle regional challenges, since no single country can solve them independently. Albanese commended the Philippines as a crucial Australian partner, sharing a vision for a free, stable and thriving region.

The nuanced interplay of geopolitics, historical legacies, and the imperative for regional unity encapsulated in Marcos Jr’s visit and statements offer a poignant reflection on the challenges and opportunities that define the Philippines-Australia strategic partnership. The resilience of this close bond will hinge on a shared, principled and sustained commitment to peace and stability as well as democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

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