The Philippines could be Australia’s most important defense partner in Southeast Asia

Which country is Australia’s most important defense partner in Southeast Asia? I suppose few readers of The strategist would place the Philippines at the top of the list. The correct answer, of course, is “It depends”. Yet for some of the most demanding military scenarios the Australian Defense Force could face in the coming decade, such as war in Taiwan or the South China Sea, the Philippines could be an indispensable partner due to its location. and their potential willingness, as a treaty ally of the United States, to grant access and logistical support to Australian forces. Although understated, the Australia-Philippines defense relationship has surprising depth and potential, meriting closer examination.

Australia’s deepest defense ties in Southeast Asia are with Malaysia and Singapore, through the Five Power Defense Agreements (FPDA) and as full bilateral partners. Singapore’s military capabilities are the most advanced in Southeast Asia. But the usefulness of the FPDA in an eventuality in the South China Sea is questionable because its mandate is limited to West Malaysia and Singapore. The likelihood of these countries extending base access to Australian forces for operations in defense of Taiwan is almost certainly lower.

Australia’s defense relationship with Indonesia attracts a political bounty for Canberra, but it lacks strategic underpinnings and Jakarta is unlikely to offer ADF access beyond transit through the archipelago. Vietnam is more promising of a similar approach to fending off Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. But Hanoi keeps its distance from the United States and its allies in the military field. Australia has expanded its defense relationship with Brunei since 2020, but like most Southeast Asian nations, the tiny sultanate would be very cautious in any crisis or conflict involving China unless it is directly threatened.

The United States is likely to face similar ambivalence across Southeast Asia, including from its ally Thailand. Laos and Myanmar would remain neutral at best, while Cambodia is in an odious position as a potential host of Chinese naval assets and possibly the air force.

The Philippines has been portrayed as an unreliable US ally, with some justification. The 2014 Philippines-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement failed to make significant progress under the dyspeptic presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. The vital agreement on visiting forces was nearly complete. But alliance relations have stabilized since 2020. Beijing’s relentless pressure tactics in what Filipinos call the Western Philippine Sea have clouded the perception of China in the Philippines. The government of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, while still new and by no means anti-China, appears to recognize the irreplaceable value of the US alliance in deterring further aggression from China, despite Washington’s mixed record of deterrence in the South China Sea.

In Philippine military circles, there is a sense of realism that proximity to Taiwan would make it extremely difficult for Manila to stay out of the way during a major conflict there. In the worst case, China could occupy the Philippine islands in the Bashi Channel or even parts of northern Luzon, to prevent the use of adjacent territory by the United States or its use as a safe haven for Taiwanese armed forces. The fighting could spread to the South China Sea proper, including China’s man-made island bases, one of which – Mischief Reef – is in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The heavy prospect of a high-intensity maritime conflict between China and the United States sheds an unusually intense light on the defense ties between Canberra and Manila. Fortunately, Australia and the Philippines, which have been comprehensive strategic partners since 2015, have already established a particularly broad and enduring bilateral defense relationship. It has deeper historical roots than is generally thought. During World War II, Australian forces actively contributed to the liberation of the Philippines, suffering significant losses in the Lingayen Gulf. The newly independent Philippines and Australia fought side by side in the Korean War.

More recently, the basis for Cooperative Defense Activities was a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding concluded in 1995. This opened the door for members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to receive education and training in Australia. Around a hundred AFP, coast guard and civil defense personnel do so each year. ADF’s mobile training teams also provide courses in the Philippines. Terrorism has been at the center of security cooperation with the Philippines for nearly two decades following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The culmination of this effort was Operation Augury-Philippines, which provided training to more than 10,000 AFP personnel during and after the siege of Marawi city, from October 2017 to December 2019. , when the operation became the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Program. Since then, the focus has shifted to assisting with AFP’s modernization and external defense plans.

Defense capacity building provided to the Philippines has focused on maritime security and domain awareness, as well as the continued threat of terrorism and pandemic health care more recently. In July 2015, Australia donated two landing craft to the Philippine Navy. Three others were acquired in March 2016.

Australia is the only country besides the United States with which the Philippines has a reciprocal Visiting Forces Agreement, signed in 2007. It came into effect in September 2012, fortuitously facilitating the ADF’s provision of aid to disaster victims in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. in 2013. In August 2021, the two governments entered into a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, providing a second pillar to support the deployment of ADF assets and personnel to the Philippines. It would be too crude to suggest that Australia provides capabilities to the AFP and in return receives access for the ADF, although this provides a basis for reciprocity in the defense relationship. The relationship at the human level is based on close people-to-people links between the armed forces and defense bureaucracies.

Like most armies in Southeast Asia, the AFP is military-dominated, despite the geography of the Philippine archipelago, but there are also bilateral ties between Australia and the Philippines. marines and the air forces. The Anzac-class frigate HMAS Arunta and BRP corvettes Apolinario Mabini exercised together in the Celebes Sea in September 2020, and Australian Navy patrol boats have already been deployed to the Philippines. The Philippine Air Force is currently participating in Exercise Pitch Black in Northern Australia. Earlier this year, the Royal Australian Air Force delivered a combat air control simulator to the Philippine Air Force “to support training”. Since at least 2017, the RAAF has periodically conducted surveillance flights over the South China Sea from the Philippines.

In May, one of two RAAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft operating from Clark Air Base, north of Manila, was dangerously intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter believed to have been near the islands Paracels. Australia’s ability to fly P-8A missions from the Philippines demonstrates the strategic potential of the relationship. An obvious gap in defense relations is the absence of a partnership at the industry level. The recent failure of Australian shipbuilder Austal’s bid to supply six new offshore patrol vessels to the Philippine Navy was a missed opportunity in this regard.

One of the reasons Australia’s defense profile in the Philippines doesn’t get more attention is that the US alliance still tends to eclipse Manila’s defense policy. Australia’s defense offer to the Philippines is modest in scale compared to US programs. Nevertheless, Australia benefits from a complementary operation without the political brake which sometimes attaches to American activities in the Philippines because of the historical baggage.

US military exercises with AFP provide the ADF with the opportunity to train alongside Americans and Filipinos. In the 2022 iteration of Balikatan, for example, Australian commandos participated in a helicopter raid on the island of Corregidor with US and Filipino marines. However, Australia’s population is about a quarter of that of the Philippines, and there are only 60,000 ADF members in uniform. Canberra must therefore manage Manila’s expectations of what Australia can realistically offer, barring a formal alliance.

Australia’s defense partnership with the Philippines is repaying the dividend of past investments at a time when the limits of more traditional relations in Southeast Asia are becoming increasingly apparent.

About Jun Quentin

Check Also

Central Asia struggles with massive influx of Russians fleeing military

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — As Russians fleeing a partial military mobilization in their home country drank …