With the recently announced AUKUS partnership gaining a lot of attention in regional security discourses, it is important to also decipher what it will mean for key countries in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Philippines. Lying at the geographic heart of the Indo-Pacific and a pillar of the rules-based order, the Philippines will be significantly impacted by the developments that have taken place over the past few weeks.
Many commentaries have been written about the implications of AUKUS for regional security. While some argue that the partnership would complicate the prospects of achieving “win-win” maritime cooperation in the region, others have supported such an initiative to counter China’s attempt to disturb the regional status quo. In this article, we argue that AUKUS serves the security interests of the Philippines and greatly complements the basic tenets of its strategic culture.
AUKUS goes beyond simply supplying Australia with nuclear submarines. Rather, its greater purpose is to contribute to the peace, stability, and maintenance of the rules-based order at a time when certain countries are seeking to revise the status quo. The Philippines was quick to realize its critical importance. Shortly after the announcement of the partnership, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said that “the enhancement of a near-abroad ally’s ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it.”
This indicates the Philippines’ commitment toward the preservation of the current regional security order. It is paramount for Manila to support this arrangement given the dynamic power shifts erupting in the region. The Philippines is no stranger to China’s provocative and assertive behavior. China continues to illegally restrict Filipino fishermen from conducting fishing activities in the area legitimately claimed by the Philippines. Moreover, China continues to increase its strategic footprint in Philippine waters.
Among other recent events, a record number of Chinese military planes have entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over the past week. Accordingly, Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang called out China for “damaging regional peace.” China has also been ramping up its “presence and activities” in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
From a geopolitical perspective, the AUKUS is less an arrangement to revise the regional order and security architecture than a force to secure the region from further efforts to alter the status quo. In this sense, the trilateral partnership is an inevitable response to the series of destabilizing security issues that are currently roiling the greater Indo-Pacific.
The Philippines’ support shows the country’s understanding of balance of power politics. Furthermore, it can be an important stepping stone toward engaging more effectively with the AUKUS members, two of which are its top development partners, while the U.S. is a treaty ally.
While other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) may still be reluctant to welcome openly this particular development, the Philippines has set the tone by highlighting the need to maintain a proactive and practical mindset amid the geopolitical uncertainties of the present.
The agreement also functions to reinforce longstanding elements of the Philippines’ strategic culture. Strategic cultures are shaped by various factors, including geographic configuration, historical experience, political structure, and defense organization, among others. For the Philippines, its strong reliance on its security alliance with the U.S. is attributed to its need to keep itself safe from external aggression in order to deal with a number of armed insurgencies.
Manila’s strategic culture has been arguably disrupted with Rodrigo Duterte’s ascent to the presidency, which resulted in a friendlier position toward Beijing and increased friction with Washington. As the 2022 presidential election draws near, it is safe to say that Philippine strategic culture persisted and that Duterte’s “crossing of the Rubicon” toward China failed.
As expected, Chinese state mouthpiece outlets rushed to condemn Manila’s position on AUKUS, saying it was naive for the country to return to its “diplomatic traditions” that may turn the country into a great power pawn once more.
As with any other culture, strategic cultures can either change gradually or dramatically. External shocks, for example, may prompt dramatic changes. Instead of a return to an “old normal” of strategic culture, the Duterte era of Philippines foreign policy may have provided insights for Manila’s institutions to carefully calibrate the state to realize the need to seriously develop a credible self-defense posture. Although the economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic are present, the gaps remaining between what China is promising and what it is doing in the maritime space may attest to this calibration.
Support for AUKUS has positive implications in enhancing Philippine strategic culture. First, AUKUS reflects the 2016 arbitral award that nullified Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and upheld most of Manila’s arguments. Despite Duterte’s initial repudiation of the ruling, this legal victory serves as a basis for Manila to continue modernizing its military and maritime law enforcement capabilities.
Moreover, the Philippines is proactive in promoting the award to the international community. Since 2020, the U.S., U.K., and Australia have voiced their support of the arbitral victory as a significant part of the regional rules-based order. Late last month, the Philippine Navy conducted a combined arms naval exercise with the Royal Australian Navy. It is likely that Manila will continue to encourage Canberra to improve its Operation Gateway in the contested South China Sea by maintaining a sustained maritime presence. A fleet of nuclear submarines that can travel farther and stay longer underwater without detection than diesel-electric submarines is simply the way to go in augmenting the Philippines’ maritime domain awareness.
Second, as the Philippine Navy seeks to acquire two diesel-electric submarines as part of the third horizon of the armed forces’ modernization program, Manila’s support for AUKUS may help keep the Philippines informed about the benefits and challenges of submarine acquisition.
Indeed, several viewpoints are present within the Philippine defense establishment about the acquisition of submarines. There are some who support this because no other platform could ever address the need for maritime defense, operational deterrence, and sea control and denial. Some others, however, are skeptical about the economic viability of such a strategy as well as its appropriateness against encroaching Chinese paramilitary vessels in the Philippines’ EEZ.
Nevertheless, it is critical to ask whether or not the Philippines would be deterring and defeating adversaries in a major regional war to defend its interests. So far, the Indo-Pacific region’s growing strategic instability may suggest that Philippine strategic culture is recalibrating itself in line with the uncertainties of the present. All this is not to promote jingoism, but it nonetheless indicates that conflict-avoidance must not be confused with a lack of military preparedness.
Despite the fact that certain countries in the region looked at AUKUS with displeasure and caution, the Philippines demonstrated a pragmatic and accommodating attitude. Manila views AUKUS as a stabilizing rather than a disruptive force because of its ability to provide a balance against revisionist tendencies. This demonstrates that different states will seek to defend the rules-based order by adopting actions that reflect their national interests.