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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.