Tensions are growing in East Asia, driven in large part by the continued rise of China and its bid for regional primacy. In particular, Beijing’s claims to “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea – and its efforts to enforce those claims – have created concerns as to exactly what kind of power it wants to wield. China’s territorial dispute with the Philippines has been one of the most vehement, with the smaller country challenging Beijing’s sweeping territorial and maritime claims, popularly known as the nine-dashed line.
While Manila has brought its case before an Arbitral Tribunal under Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is pursuing other avenues to defend its interests. The Philippines has initiated strategic partnerships with Japan and Australia that seek to elevate bilateral ties that prioritize security cooperation. These partnerships are comprehensive: economic, political, and socio-cultural. With the elevation of bilateral relations to a strategic level, Manila expects closer cooperation especially in military and maritime matters.
These initiatives indicate the willingness of the Philippines to expand its current bilateral and multilateral relations and deepen its ties with like-minded states, although date, only Japan has agreed to a partnership. The Philippines seeks to complement its multilateral relations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its mutual defense treaty with the U.S. with other robust bilateral cooperation to enhance its position in East Asia.
The Philippines-Japan strategic partnership originally began as an enhanced economic relationship. Having signed the Philippines-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, the two countries decided that fostering a strategic partnership should be among their shared policy objectives.
In 2011, the Strategic Partnership was formalized through a joint statement issued by President Benigno S. Aquino III and then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Their statement alluded to shared basic values such as freedom, democracy, fundamental human rights and the rule of law as the main bases for the enhanced level of relations. A common strategic interest in protecting the sea lines of communication of the two maritime countries was also identified as a foundation of the enhanced relationship.
Manila became the first official overseas destination of Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida when he visited Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario on January 9, 2013 to discuss shared regional concerns and bilateral activities. At their subsequent meeting in Tokyo, Del Rosario and Kishida agreed that Japan will provide the Philippine Coast Guard with several patrol boats. At $11 million per boat, the transfer will be funded by Japan’s official development assistance to the Philippines and will be completed in a span of 18 months. The boats are expected to help the Philippines patrol its vast coastline and improve maritime domain awareness.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera visited the Philippines at the end of June 2013 to confer with his Filipino counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin. The two officials vowed to work together closely to ensure that the rule of law prevails in the settlement of the territorial disputes. Japan also has a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea over islets it calls Senkaku Islands (and which China calls the Diaoyu Islands). The Philippines and Japan also agreed to work together to help the United States maximize its rebalance to the Asia Pacific. In addition, Manila expressed a willingness to provide Japanese maritime vessels with access to some of its naval bases, alongside the United States.
The Philippines also offered to boost ties with Australia to the level of a strategic partnership, with President Aquino saying that it is “high time” for two countries that “have shared values, shared background, shared aspirations and perhaps also shared problems” to step up cooperation.
While Australia has yet to officially respond to this request, current bilateral relations are good as the two countries have been steadfast partners in trade, development, good governance and security.
Australia is the Philippines’ primary partner, along with the United States, in the implementation of the Coast Watch South (later known as the Coast Watch System) program, which seeks to improve the Philippines’ maritime domain awareness and border security. In 2007, the two countries signed the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOFVA), which entered into force in September 2012. The SOFVA is an agreement between the Philippines and Australia that establishes procedures for exchanges of troops. The SOFVA provides a comprehensive legal framework for the presence of Australia’s forces in the Philippines and the latter’s forces in the former. The two parties assume the same obligations under this reciprocal agreement.
Carlyle Thayer, a long-time Australian foreign policy analyst, observed that the strategic partnership proposal is “primarily symbolic” and an attempt by the Philippines to draw Australia into the circle of states that will support the Philippines’ stance on the rule of law and peaceful regional norms in the management of the tensions in the South China Sea.
It is tempting to view the Philippines’ efforts at establishing strategic partnership as attempts to establish alliances to help protect its territorial claims from further Chinese encroachment, but in fact the nature of cooperation does not reach that level. Instead, as its cooperation with Japan indicates, Manila is primarily looking for a reaffirmation of its position that regional order in Northeast and Southeast Asia should not be at the mercy of unilateral action, but must be a product of intense consultations that addresses the insecurities of all countries in the region.
Del Rosario has noted that regional order in East Asia “can be strengthened” but this can only happen when states affirm “norms and rules of good behavior” that benefits “all the peoples of Southeast Asia and the wider Asia Pacific region.”
The U.S. remains the primary guarantor of Southeast Asian security, but regional states such as the Philippines also need the assurance of regional norms and rules of order that address their insecurity in the face of a more robust and forceful China. The Philippines’ efforts to draw regional states and other stakeholders to support norms of peaceful conduct can also be interpreted as an attempt to ensure that the risk of military confrontation is kept to a minimum, given the obvious disadvantages that smaller countries have in military terms.
While strategic partnerships do not offer the assurances that security alliances provide, they have already contributed to the Philippines’ defense posture. The Philippines has already gained a significant commitment from Japan to improve its surveillance capacity. Further, strategic partnerships provide a stronger avenue for defense and security cooperation. Aside from the material benefits, they can theoretically provide an indirect deterrence function by involving other states that future aggressors may not want to provoke.
For the Philippines, strategic partnerships were originally economic in nature. Concerned that it may be the subject of future bullying, however, Manila has moved to the arrangements to include a security component that seeks to protect what Del Rosario calls its “core democratic values”. The Philippines has emphasized that countries that share these values have a stake in the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.
Strategic partnerships are also evidence that some countries are ready to align against a perceived threat to the regional order. This cooperative activity, premised as it is on shared values, makes it easier for other regional states and external stakeholders to come on board to prevent any one power from upsetting established norms. The Philippines’ efforts to expand and deepen its security ties with other regional stakeholders add to the emerging power web in East Asia, just one of the interesting aspects of the evolving regional security environment.
Julio Amador III is an Asia Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of any institution.