OPINION | The Philippines could be Australia’s most important defence partner in Southeast Asia
Which country is Australia’s most important defence partner in Southeast Asia? I’m guessing not many readers of The Strategist would put the Philippines at the top of their lists. The correct answer, of course, is, “It depends.” Yet, for some of the most demanding military scenarios that may confront the Australian Defence Force in the decade ahead, such as a war over Taiwan or in the South China Sea, the Philippines could be an indispensable partner because of its location and potential willingness, as a fellow treaty ally of the United States, to grant access and logistical support to Australian forces.
Although low profile, the Australia–Philippines defence relationship has surprising depth and potential, meriting a closer look.
Australia’s deepest defence ties in Southeast Asia are with Malaysia and Singapore, through the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) and as bilateral partners in their own right. Singapore’s military capabilities are the most advanced in Southeast Asia. But the utility of the FPDA in a South China Sea contingency is questionable because its remit is limited to West Malaysia and Singapore. The probability of these countries extending basing access to Australian forces for operations to defend Taiwan is almost certainly lower.
Australia’s defence relationship with Indonesia attracts a political premium for Canberra, but it lacks strategic underpinnings and Jakarta is unlikely to offer access for the ADF beyond transit through the archipelago. Vietnam holds out more promise of a like-minded approach to pushing back against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. But Hanoi keeps its distance from the US and its allies in the military domain. Australia has expanded its defence relationship with Brunei since 2020, but like most Southeast Asian countries, the small sultanate would tread very carefully in any crisis or conflict involving China unless it is directly threatened.
The US is likely to confront similar ambivalence across Southeast Asia, including from its ally Thailand. Laos and Myanmar would remain neutral, at best, while Cambodia is in an invidious position as the prospective host for Chinese naval and possibly air force assets.
“Defence capacity-building delivered to the Philippines has focused on maritime security and domain awareness.”
The Philippines has been portrayed as an unreliable ally of the US, with some justification. The 2014 Philippines–US Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement failed to progress significantly under Rodrigo Duterte’s dyspeptic presidency. The vital visiting forces agreement was nearly terminated. But alliance relations have stabilised since 2020. Beijing’s relentless pressure tactics in what Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea have darkened perceptions of China in the Philippines. The government under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, though still new and by no means anti-China, appears to recognise the irreplaceable value of the US alliance for deterring further aggression by China, despite Washington’s mixed record of deterrence in the South China Sea.
In Philippine military circles there’s a sense of realism that proximity to Taiwan would make it extremely difficult for Manila to stay on the sidelines during a major conflict there. In the worst case, China could occupy Philippine islands in the Bashi Channel or even parts of northern Luzon, to deny the use of adjacent territory to the US or its use as a safe haven for Taiwan’s armed forces. Fighting could spread to the South China Sea proper, including China’s artificial island bases, one of which—Mischief Reef—sits within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
The fraught prospect of a high-intensity maritime conflict between China and the US shines an uncommonly intense light on defence ties between Canberra and Manila. Fortunately, Australia and the Philippines, which have been comprehensive strategic partners since 2015, have already established a notably broad-based and durable bilateral defence relationship. It has deeper historical roots than widely assumed. In World War II, Australian forces made an active contribution to the liberation of the Philippines, incurring significant losses at Lingayen Gulf. The newly independent Philippines and Australia fought side by side in the Korean War.
In more recent times, the basis for cooperative defence activities was a bilateral memorandum of understanding agreed in 1995. That opened the door for members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to receive education and training in Australia. Around 100 AFP, coast guard, and civilian defence personnel do so every year. ADF mobile training teams also deliver courses in the Philippines. Terrorism was the main focus of security cooperation with the Philippines for almost two decades after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. The culmination of that 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 until December 2019, when the operation transitioned to become the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Program. Since then, the emphasis has shifted towards assisting the AFP’s modernisation and external defence plans.
Defence capacity-building delivered to the Philippines has focused on maritime security and domain awareness, as well as the lingering threat from terrorism and pandemic healthcare more recently. In July 2015, Australia donated two landing craft to the Philippine Navy. A further three were acquired in March 2016.
“Canberra needs to manage Manila’s expectations of what Australia can realistically deliver, short of a formal alliance.”
Australia is the only country apart from the US with which the Philippines has a reciprocal visiting forces agreement, signed in 2007. It entered into force in September 2012, fortuitously facilitating the ADF’s delivery of disaster relief assistance to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. In August 2021, the two governments concluded a mutual logistics support arrangement, providing a second pillar to sustain the deployment of ADF assets and personnel to the Philippines. It would be too crude to suggest that Australia provides capacity to the AFP and receives access for the ADF in return, though that does provide a basis for reciprocity in the defence relationship. Underpinning the relationship at a human level are close interpersonal connections across the armed services and defence bureaucracies.
Like most militaries in Southeast Asia, the AFP is army dominated despite the Philippines’ archipelagic geography, but there are also bilateral links between the Australian and Philippine navies and air forces. The Anzac-class frigate HMAS Arunta and corvette BRP Apolinario Mabini exercised together in the Celebes Sea in September 2020, and Royal Australian Navy patrol boats have previously 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 a pair of RAAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft operating from Clark Air Base north of Manila was unsafely intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter reportedly near the Paracel Islands. Australia’s ability to fly P-8A missions out of the Philippines demonstrates the strategic potential of the relationship. One obvious deficiency in defence relations is the absence of an industrial-level partnership. 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 reason Australia’s defence profile in the Philippines doesn’t receive more attention is because the US alliance still tends to overshadow Manila’s defence policymaking. Australia’s defence offer to the Philippines is on a modest scale compared with US programs. Nonetheless, Australia benefits from operating in a complementary fashion without the political drag that sometimes attaches to US activities in the Philippines because of historical baggage.
US military exercises with the AFP provide opportunities for the ADF to train alongside Americans and Filipinos. In the 2022 iteration of Balikatan, for example, Australian commandos took part in a helicopter raid on the island of Corregidor together with US and Philippine marines. However, Australia’s population is around a quarter of that of the Philippines and there are just 60,000 ADF personnel in uniform. Canberra therefore needs to manage Manila’s expectations of what Australia can realistically deliver, short of a formal alliance.
Australia’s defence partnership with the Philippines is repaying the dividend of past investments at a time when the limits to more traditional relationships in Southeast Asia are becoming increasingly apparent.