11 July 2024

The Philippines and Australia shored up their security and economic alliance Friday with the signing of a strategic partnership, as they seek to counter China’s growing regional influence.

The agreement was finalised following a meeting between Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Manila.

Albanese’s visit, which marks the first bilateral talks with an Australian prime minister in Manila in 20 years, follows a series of trips by senior members of his government to the archipelago nation since Marcos took office in 2022.

Under a strategic partnership, the countries will seek to expand cooperation in several areas from defence and security to climate change and education.

“This elevation is an important symbol of the strength of our relationship and our shared commitment to do more together,” Albanese told officials, diplomats and reporters after the two leaders signed the agreement.

China’s growing assertiveness on Taiwan and the militarisation of artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea have spurred Canberra, as well as Washington, to deepen defence cooperation with longstanding ally Manila.

At the start of talks, Marcos thanked Albanese for his “strong support” for the Philippines as it seeks to fend off maritime claims that are “not valid”, in a thinly veiled reference to China.

“To have friends like you and partners like you especially on that subject is very gratifying and encourages us to continue down that path,” Marcos told Albanese.

Albanese described the two countries as “great friends” and expressed hope that his visit would help take the relationship “to an even higher level”.

A strategic partnership is the highest level of bilateral ties that Australia has had with the Philippines.

Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, ignoring an international ruling that its stance has no legal basis.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of it.

Philippine ex-president Rodrigo Duterte pivoted away from his country’s traditional security partners towards China, but the Marcos administration has sought to reverse that stance.

Australian and Filipino troops last month held a major joint exercise near the contested waters.

The event was watched by Marcos, his defence minister Gilberto Teodoro and Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles.

– ‘Mistake’ –
At the time, Marcos hailed the drills as “an important aspect of how we prepare for any eventuality”.

Those exercises came after a Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands was blocked by China Coast Guard vessels using water cannon on August 5, triggering a diplomatic spat and international outrage.

Among other agreements signed during Friday’s talks was a memorandum of understanding for reciprocal work and holiday visas.

The countries also agreed to hold an annual defence ministers’ meeting.

Human Rights Watch had called on Albanese to also “seriously” discuss human rights during his talks with Marcos, including pushing for an end to the deadly drug war started by Duterte.

“The Australian government should recognise that it would be a mistake to deepen defense and security ties with the Philippines while ignoring human rights concerns,” Australia director for HRW Daniela Gavshon said ahead of the talks.

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