At first glance Australia and The Philippines are distant neighbors with similar trade dominated interests in the Pacific but their relationship could hardly be described as close. Nevertheless they both stand as long-term allies of the United States and that carries its own responsibilities.
Earlier this week, The Philippines senate, amid heightened territorial conflicts with China, ratified an accord after four years of considerations that would allow Australian soldiers to train with the Filipino military inside the country.
Supporters say the agreement will bolster defense in The Philippines which has struggled against a show of military muscle by China around the resource-rich disputed islands in the seas and international shipping lanes which divide The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and China.
It’s a sensitive issue.
The Philippines constitution forbids foreign troops from basing themselves permanently inside the country. Visits must be ratified by the senate which struck a similar deal with U.S. forces who have been in-country for a decade battling Islamic al-Qaeda-linked militants.
As a former American colony, The Philippines’ relationship with Washington is on a different level than with Canberra and approval of the accord is purely symptomatic of the escalating tensions involving the Spratly Islands.
That chain of remote islands sits largely within the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the country’s southwest coast and are geographically a part of The Philippine archipelago.
Senator Eduardo Angara perhaps best summed up the mood saying his country required a “network of protective friends” amid threats from China which he described as “a very powerful country that already extends its claims close to the doorstep of our country.”
The accord was also signed-off on as Vietnam and The Philippines tackled China over the Paracel Islands, further to the north of the Spratlys where China has announced plans to garrison troops in Sansha, a move that Vietnam says violates international law.
U.S. Senator John McCain has weighed in describing the deployment as “unnecessarily provocative” and an action that is “disappointing and not befitting a responsible great power.”
For the Australians, the accord will not automatically lock their troops onto the front lines if heightened tensions threaten to escalate into a conflict, a scenario that no one in Southeast Asia, the U.S. or Australia wants to see.
The accord also allows Australian forces to train Filipinos in the management of natural disasters and terrorism, and was initially drafted when the War on Terror in Southeast Asia was nearer its peak.