Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte toured an Australian Navy warship docked this week in Manila, the latest sign of the two sides’ growing strategic cooperation in combating the rising threat of Islamic terrorism in the region.
Australia was among the first regional powers to ring alarm bells over the threat posed by Islamic State to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The warning came weeks before local and foreign militants first laid siege to the city of Marawi on May 22, a four-month-old urban warfare battle Manila is still struggling to finish.
“We’re coping … we also hope [the Marawi battle] will be finished in about one week,” declared Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte aboard Australia’s largest warship, the HMAS Adelaide, during a goodwill mission to Manila on October 10.
Since September, a fleet of six Australian Navy ships carrying as many as 1,200 Australian Defense Force Personnel has toured the region under the Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2017 – a muscular expression of Australia’s growing naval presence in adjacent waterways.
The Canberra-class amphibious warship HMAS Adelaide serves as the flagship vessel for the high-profile mission, with the participation of five other frigates, namely the HMAS Toowoomba, HMAS Parramatta HMAS Darwin, HMAS Melbourne, and the newly-upgraded HMAS Sirius, floating alongside.
In light of new strategic challenges in the region, ranging from the Trump administration’s prevarications on its commitment to the region’s security to China’s rising maritime assertiveness, Australia is eager to project its naval prowess to preserve a semblance of regional order.
The Australian ships’ visit to Manila, however, carried special strategic significance, underscoring a recent marked upswing in bilateral ties.
Duterte’s tour of Australia’s flagship vessel marked one of the few occasions when the tough-talking president cordially welcomed a Western military delegation and expressed his interest in stronger defense cooperation against common threats, ranging from the specter of Islamic State terrorism to North Korea’s nuclear provocations.
Previously the Filipino leader only expressed interest in visiting warships from non-Western countries, especially Russia and China – the two powers that have vigourously courted Duterte’s favor in the past year. After touring a Chinese warship on a good will visit to his hometown of Davao earlier this year, Duterte publicly demurred an invitation extended by US President Donald Trump to visit the White House.
In recent months, however, the Filipino president has gradually warmed to the West, especially Australia, as global terrorism arrives in fierce form in the Philippines. His policy recalibration is borne out of new strategic exigencies, particularly the prospect of terror contagion in Mindanao, as well as recently improved bilateral diplomatic rapport between Manila and Western interlocutors.
Over the past year, the Duterte administration has often been at loggerheads with Western capitals over human rights concerns. Traditional allies, including the United States and the European Union, have roundly criticized the Filipino president’s brutal crackdown on illegal drugs that has killed thousands of alleged drug suspects.
Australia, on the other hand, has pursued a more nuanced position by emphasizing areas of common interest and concern. Canberra is particularly perturbed by the possible establishment of an Islamic State stronghold, or caliphate, nearby in the southern Philippines.
The imperative of countering transnational terrorism close to home seems to have forced Canberra’s hand. As Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put it last month, his country has “a vital, vested interest in that [Islamic State] insurgency being defeated.”
Relishing Australia’s quiet diplomacy, Duterte has accordingly adopted a more cordial line towards Canberra. Duterte has claimed that he has rarely discussed human rights concerns with the West since the start of the Marawi operations, where Philippine forces have waged a months-long campaign against IS-affiliated militants with Western logistical and surveillance support.
From Duterte’s perspective, traditional allies, especially Australia, are beginning to engage him on his own terms. In August, the Philippine government enthusiastically released a ‘highly unusual’ photo which showed the Filipino president and Nick Warner, the highly reclusive Australian spy chief, cordially posing with a signature ‘Duterte fist.’
During the meeting, the two sides discussed the prospects of expanded counterterrorism cooperation in Mindanao. Since the beginning of the battle of Marawi, Australia has provided high-grade intelligence via state-of-the-art surveillance aircrafts. More intelligence, training and equipment assistance, officials say, are on the way.
Australia, which has a Status of Forces Agreement with the Philippines, is now considering the deployment of Special Forces to Mindanao to aid Philippine forces and deny transnational terror groups access to nearby Southeast Asian countries.
Given its geographical proximity – including to strategic military bases at Darwin – and deepening concerns over radicalization at home, Australia has been at the forefront of operations against IS both in the Middle East and now in Southeast Asia.
While Washington still has complicated relations with Duterte over rights, rhetoric and a clear shift towards China, Australia is now arguably the Philippines’ new closest defense partner.
Australia is expected to host Duterte at a special summit between Canberra and Southeast Asian leaders early next year. The event, if held as planned, will mark Duterte’s first official visit to a major Western capital and serve as a bridge between the Philippines and Western alliance now hard-focused on uprooting Islamic State’s infiltration in the region.