As a maritime trading nation, Australia’s geostrategic interest in the Philippines derives largely from the volume of maritime trade that transits between Australia and Northeast Asia, through waters controlled by or adjacent to the Philippines. This also helps to explain Australia’s stance on freedom of navigation in the South China/West Philippines Sea. A large proportion of Australia’s refined petroleum imports comes from Korea, Japan and China, and transit through the Sulu and Celebes Seas. These shipments are threatened by piracy and terrorism linked to the ongoing Marawi crisis.
For this reason, it is in Australia’s interest for the Philippines to have an effective and accountable security sector and a stable well-functioning government that upholds the rule of law. To deal with the rising threats of terror and radicalization, the Philippines needs a capable and effective military and police force. Australia needs a safe, stable and reliable guarantee of its freedom of navigation. This can be secured by the rule of law, and not by shifting discretion or convenience of governments or their leaders. On the other hand, Australia needs to have a good relationship with the Philippines’ leadership to maintain ongoing access to engage in cooperative intelligence activities in the Philippines. Australia has a significant stake in the resolution of the Marawi crisis, contributing intelligence support from two P3 Orion Aircraft flying overhead missions to gather signals and imagery of the militants still in Marawi.
The Philippines-Australia relationship has become more complicated under the Duterte administration. Duterte scoffs at the rule of law and its institutions. He has no desire at the moment to build a professional and effective police force to confront extremist groups or to strengthen judicial institutions. His interest lies in increasing the number of killings of those involved in illegal drugs or those who criticize his policies. With over 12,000 reported extrajudicial killings (including women and children) the administration is turning the police force into the biggest criminal institution in the country. Additionally, Duterte has shown he is comfortable leveraging the Philippines’ geostrategic importance to major regional powers, including the United States, China and Australia. He continues to threaten to sever ties with the United States and derides Western leaders’ criticisms of his policies. It is obvious that he has no respect either for international law or the human rights system. Similarly, Duterte shows no interest in upholding the rule of law in international waters, as shown by his decision to downplay the Hague ruling on the South China Sea dispute. Additionally, Duterte has avoided engaging ASEAN for a multilateral solution to the issue in the form of a binding code of conduct in the disputed seas.
A divided and politically unstable Philippines, coupled with a rampaging undisciplined police corps, will not serve Australia’s strategic interests. A Philippines that will not assert its rightful claim on the South China Sea nor support ASEAN’s role on the issue does not bode well for Australia’s position on freedom of navigation.
Australia is in a quandary on how to manage Duterte. It has not unequivocally condemned the Drug War, nor any of Duterte’s creeping measures towards authoritarianism. Australia’s DFAT Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva made a statement criticizing Duterte in May. However, this was at a low level of authority, and so has reasonably little significance. Meanwhile Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop did not raise the issue with Duterte in their meetings and instead pledged Australia’s continued support for peacebuilding in Mindanao. So why not? Duterte has a track-record of taking criticism very badly. This was demonstrated when he blasted Australian Ambassador Amanda Gorely’s mild criticism of his comments about the gang-rape of an Australian woman in 1989.
Duterte also has popular support for his drug war, both at home and in Indonesia. Duterte is more popular in the Philippines now than he was before the drug war began. In late July Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo gave a speech in which he called for police to gun down drug traffickers who resist arrest, echoing similar statements made by Duterte. Since then, Amnesty International has reported the extrajudicial killing by police of at least 60 drug suspects in Indonesia. Indonesia’s National Police Chief has previously called Duterte’s Drug War a good example of how to make drug dealers “go away.” This means that if Australia issues a strong criticism at the highest levels of Duterte’s Drug War, it could damage Australia’s relationship with both the Philippines and Indonesia. Duterte has made it clear he does not care what foreign critics say, so criticism from Australia would likely do little to stem the violence.
On moral grounds, Australia should condemn Duterte’s behavior. In practical terms it is unlikely to happen, and even less likely to work.
What Does This Mean for Australia (or What Can Australia Do?)
Duterte’s Drug War and moves to undermine institutions of the rule of law run counter to Australia’s national interest. Australia benefits from a secure, stable and progressive Philippines that upholds the rule of law. A singular brutal focus on narco-politics by the Duterte administration has sidelined much needed reforms that could deliver sustainable peace and inclusive growth and build responsive institutions. The anti-drug crusade has manipulated people to applaud extrajudicial killings, thus further weakening legal institutions. If this trend continues, we may yet again see the Philippines descend into deep political and economic instability. The Philippines looks like a humanitarian disaster in waiting, and may become increasingly hard to govern in the long-term. This may mean more poverty and injustice, increasing the chances of terrorism, piracy and mass migration. This presents ever more risks to Australia’s interests in the region.
Now more than ever, Australian policymakers need to be looking for creative ways to stop or mitigate Duterte’s detrimental policies. While it makes sense for Australia to hold off its public criticisms, there is a lot that Australia can and should be doing. Australia can channel its development aid towards providing assistance on combating drug proliferation. This could be implemented by drawing from its past successes in intelligence gathering and community policing. The integrity and capacity of the institutions of the rule of law, including civil society, need to be strengthened. This is particularly the case on areas where due process can be served effectively and in professionalizing justice personnel and members of the legal profession. Australia can also support the work of domestic Philippine and international human rights institutions to ensure that governments and leaders are made accountable for their human rights atrocities during or long after their terms of office.
The Philippines’ proximity to Australia – and the large number of Filipino migrants in Australia, further make a compelling case for Australia to be concerned with the Philippines’ chaos.
Dr Imelda Deinla is a Research Fellow at the School of Regulation and Global Governance, College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Her area of expertise is on rule of law and ASEAN integration, legal pluralism, justice and conflict in Mindanao, Philippines. She recently published a book, The Development of the Rule of Law in ASEAN: the state and regional integration (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Rory MacNeil is currently completing his MA thesis in International Relations at the ANU. His research focus is on petro-politics in the Asia Pacific region. He also works as a Research Assistant at the ANU Philippines Project.