Can the Philippines and Australia Elevate their Partnership to a Strategic Level?

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Can the Philippines and Australia Elevate their Partnership to a Strategic Level?

Human rights concerns may limit cooperation, but the cyber domain is an area for collaboration.

Can the Philippines and Australia Elevate their Partnership to a Strategic Level?
Credit: Presidential Communications Office of the Philippines

Before his departure for Japan to attend the highly-anticipated G-20 Summit, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered the first foreign policy speech of his new term, echoing Australia’s balancing act amid the ongoing global power contest between the United States and China. Morrison urged the two superpowers to diffuse the escalating tensions for the sake of the world and warned about the collateral damage if such a strategic competition turns adversarial.

In that same speech, Morrison called upon Australia’s partners and allies in the region — Japan, India, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea — to work closely based on shared challenges to achieve common interests. But nowhere to be found in Morrison’s remarks is Australia’s fellow US ally and democratic state, the Philippines.

Compared to other ASEAN member states such as Vietnam and Indonesia, who have acceded to become Australia’s strategic partners, the Philippines remains at the comprehensive partnership level.

Recent developments in the context of the Philippines and Australia relations in the last three years could have impeded the possibility for a potential upgrade in their bilateral relationship. Australia disapproves of the Philippines’ alarming human rights situation, exemplified by President Rodrigo Duterte’s highly controversial “War on Drugs,” the ongoing assault on press freedom, the continuing persecution of Duterte’s staunch critics, as well as the deportation of Australian Human Rights advocate Sister Patricia Fox in 2018. In July, Australia joined 18 other countries in supporting a resolution for the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the Duterte government’s drug war killings; afterward the Philippine foreign secretary warned that Manila would be “a worse enemy to false friends.”

Advancing Australia-Philippines relations toward a strategic partnership might not be pragmatic in the short to medium term due to obvious disagreements and tension over democratic values and the rule of law. However, such differences must not preclude the two American allies from working toward shared strategic priorities, as security threats are emerging as well as evolving rapidly. The cybersecurity domain is a critical area that offers improved prospects for the two countries to deepen their existing collaboration.

Two years since launching its International Cyber Engagement Strategy, Australia has gradually positioned cybersecurity as an important dimension of its foreign policy agenda. Australia continues to shape the debate in ASEAN concerning applicable laws and norms in cyberspace, strengthening cybercrime prevention, and promoting inclusivity through its cyber policy dialogue.

Such a multilateral approach can be adopted specifically in the context of the bilateral relationship between the Philippines and Australia. Policy discussions and capacity building engagements are key initiatives to achieve this. Through their inaugural track 1.5/2 dialogue, the two countries could start laying the groundwork on a full range of cybersecurity-related issues — cyberwarfare, cyberespionage, fake news, and disinformation — as well as co-developing national policies and/or legal frameworks to address cybercrimes and cyberterrorism.

In the area of capability building, Australia and the Philippines can conduct cybersecurity drills in the context of any possible cyberattack to critical infrastructures. Furthermore, as the Philippine government continues to have a capacity deficit in cyberforensics, the exchange of best practices, techniques, and procedures will also be beneficial to bolster the Department of Information and Communications Technology’s Cybersecurity Division in detecting persistent and malicious activities. Another practical area of collaboration would be cyberthreat information-sharing via a national Computer Emergency Response Team or CERT-to-CERT coordination between the two countries.

As tech companies race toward developing artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics, the central role of utilizing data in driving such technologies forward has become a human rights issue. Furthermore, as the Philippines continues to be one of the biggest victims of data breaches in the ASEAN region, data protection is not solely a privacy issue but also falls under cybersecurity.

Under the Cyber Affairs Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Australia continues to advocate for inclusive collaboration by embracing the vital roles of the academia, private sector, and civil society groups. In the Philippines, Australia has partnered with local data privacy advocates.

By strengthening its partnerships with Philippine-based civil society groups along with academic institutions, Australia’s Cyber Affairs Division could launch an information education and communications campaign that targets the broader public regarding the fundamental value of regulatory laws on data privacy and protection. This shall encourage not only government agencies but also private businesses and organizations to strengthen their resolve in adhering to the National Data Privacy Act of 2012 in protecting personal identifiable data.

Through its various partners such as the Australian Cyber Security Network or AustCyber, Australia is also engaging with leading players in the tech industry in transforming its cybersecurity sector as an economic and investment powerhouse. For instance, AustCyber is also cultivating indigenous talent by infusing funding and training through start-up competitions. The engagement has also a regional focus through Australian Trade and DFAT’s Innovation Exchange, which seeks to promote Australia’s cybersecurity industry.

As the Philippines startup scene continues to thrive, there is an opportunity among Australian and Filipino investors to expand on-going collaboration from fintech to cybersecurity. The recent signing of the Philippine Innovation Act is expected to boost the Philippines’ global competitiveness in human capital, digital economy, and global value chain.

Likewise, as the Philippines continues to be one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia amid sluggish regional growth, its companies are also becoming even more vulnerable to economic losses caused by cyber threats, which were estimated to cost up to US$3.5 billion. In the coming years, companies in the Philippines are expected to ramp up their cybersecurity investments by an estimate of $22.8 billion to deter cyberattacks — an opportunity that the Australian cybersecurity industry must seize.

Amid diverging views on issues relating to human rights, elevating Philippine-Australia relations to a strategic partnership might not be feasible in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, achieving shared strategic priorities in the realm of cybersecurity compels the two U.S. allies to deepen their existing cooperation.

Mark Manantan is a research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Taipei and a research affiliate of Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress. He is the founder of Bryman Media. Views expressed are entirely personal.