Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr together with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the signing of a Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership between Philippines and Australia at Malacañang Palace, September 8, 2023. Photo: PPA Pool / Yummie Dingding

When Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese signed a new strategic partnership with the Philippines on Friday (September 8) in Manila, the ceremony marked the culmination of a year-long charm offensive to win over Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s Western-friendly administration.

Albanese described the new partnership as “historic” and a “watershed moment” that will “contribute to an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.” Marcos Jr said the new bilateral deal was “very gratifying” and “terribly important” amid growing geopolitical uncertainty in the region.  

The pact underscores the growing convergence between the two US allies on the need to enhance maritime security cooperation in the face of China’s expanding footprint and rising assertiveness in adjacent waters including the South China Sea.

Bilateral defense relations have become increasingly robust in recent years through the two sides’ Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), which was first signed in 2007 likewise with an eye on China and facilitates joint exercises and training and allows for temporary use of bases and facilities.

Last month, Australia conducted joint patrols as well as major bilateral military drills with the Philippines shortly after Chinese vessels used water cannons against Philippine resupply vessels near the contested Second Thomas Shoal.

At the strategic partnership’s signing ceremony, Albanese promised to upgrade bilateral relations “to an even higher level” with a focus on enhancing people-to-people exchanges as well as trade and investment ties.

Australia’s trade with Manila is relatively small compared to other Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.

Despite their deep historical ties, with Australian troops playing a crucial role in the liberation of the Philippines from Imperial Japan during World War II, bilateral relations were relatively limited throughout the Cold War period.

By and large, the Philippines served as America’s forward deployment base for military operations across East Asia, including in the Korean Peninsula and during the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile, the so-called “White Australia Policy” largely hampered meaningful interaction with the Philippines, which experienced massive emigration to the US but not Australia in the second half of the 20th century.

Philippine-Australia relations, however, got a boost following the departure of US bases from Subic and Clark in the early 1990s. In particular, growing threats from a rising China that culminated in its coercive seizure of the Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, driving Manila to seek new defense partnerships.

China has militarized Mischief Reef since seizing it from the Philippines. Photo: Asia Times files / EyePress / Digital Globe

The upshot was the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperative Defense Activities and the Joint Defense Cooperation Committee (JDCC) with Canberra, both of which provided frameworks for closer defense cooperation.

The two sides then negotiated SOFVA to institutionalize military cooperation. After its initial hesitation, the Philippine Senate ratified the defense pact following Beijing’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal in mid-2012 after a months-long naval standoff Manila ultimately lost.

Though China was a major driver for SOVFA, the defense pact proved crucial for the delivery of emergency assistance during recent Philippine natural disasters, including the Haiyan superstorm disaster in 2013.

Soon thereafter Australia also began to join large-scale Philippine-US military drills, most notably the annual Balikatan exercises.

It didn’t take long before Australia began providing defense aid, including notably the transfer of three former Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Balikpapan-class heavy landing craft (LCH) to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the mid-2010s.

Eager to enhance Australia’s strategic ties with Southeast Asia, then-Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull visited Manila on multiple occasions and hosted the inaugural Australia-ASEAN Summit. In 2015, he signed the Joint Declaration on Australia-Philippine Comprehensive Partnership (DCP), which laid down the foundation for an even more comprehensive partnership. 

Bilateral ties entered a new phase when Australia offered special forces training and deployed surveillance aircraft to assist the AFP during 2017 the Marawi crisis in the southern Philippines, which saw militant groups aligned with Islamic State lay siege to the city.

The episode left a deep impression on the Philippine political elite, most notably President Rodrigo Duterte, who publicly thanked Australia for “showing solidarity” during the crisis on his home island of Mindanao.

Although he boycotted Western capitals throughout his six-year term in office, Duterte personally boarded the HMAS Adelaide during the Royal Australian Navy’s goodwill visit to Manila in 2017.

Duterte’s successor, however, has wasted no time in winning back traditional allies amid escalating tensions with Beijing over their South China Sea disputes. In that direction, Marcos Jr decided earlier this year to expand the country’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US.

The expanded agreement will allow US forces access to five new Philippine bases, including a facility that is geographically close to Taiwan. Shortly after, top Australian officials were in Manila to enhance their defense partnership with Manila as part of a broader network of likeminded actors in the region.  

The Philippines also became the only Southeast Asian nation to openly back the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) nuclear-powered submarine deal, which drew criticism from both Beijing-friendly and non-aligned nations in the region such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Last month, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles visited Manila for the second time to observe the Philippine-Australia  Amphibious and Land Operations of the Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2023 (ALON) exercises near the South China Sea. This coincided with Australia, Philippine and Japan trilateral patrols in the sea, with Canberra dangling more joint patrols in the near future.

Against this backdrop, the newly signed strategic partnership aims to seal the deal of expanded relations between the two fellow US allies.

“Australia is working with our partners including the Philippines to shape a region where sovereignty is upheld,” Albanese said during a press conference, emphasizing Canberra’s commitment to managing South China Sea disputes in accordance with international law.

“Australia supports the 2016 South China Sea arbitral award. That is final and binding. And it is important that it be upheld going forward,” he added, referring to the Philippine-initiated legal proceedings, which culminated in an arbitral ruling at The Hague against China’s expansive claims over the South China Sea.

Philippine and Australian troops are poised to train more together under their new strategic partnership. Image: Twitter

During his visit, Albanese also spoke of developing an even more comprehensive relationship “based on close cooperation and enriched by the 400,000 Australians with Filipino heritage.”

In particular, Albanese promised to enhance people-to-people relations by doubling Australia Awards Scholarships to the Philippines, re-establishing the Philippines Institute at the Australian National University, establishing a new reciprocal Work and Holiday visa for Australians and Filipinos and providing up to $64.5 million in additional aid for the peace process in Mindanao.

To date, bilateral relations remain lopsided. Philippine-Australia bilateral trade ($6.2 billion in 2021) is relatively small compared to Canberra’s trade with similarly sized nations in Southeast Asia such as Vietnam ($18 billion) and Thailand ($25 billion).

Albanese hopes to boost trade and investment ties with Southeast Asian nations under the newly-launched Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040, though it’s not clear how much the policy will emphasize the Philippines.

Australia’s charm offensive toward the Philippines has also come under criticism for potentially overlooking Manila’s troubling human rights and corruption record during the Duterte administration.

“The Australian government should recognize that it would be a mistake to deepen defense and security ties with the Philippines while ignoring human rights concerns,” said Australia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) Daniela Gavshon ahead of the Albanese-Marcos meeting.

“A security partner that routinely violates basic human rights will ultimately provide little safety and security for anyone,” Gavshon said.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on X at @Richeydarian