Australia and the Philippines - prospects for engagement

The Australia-Philippine relationship can continue its steady pace by paying even closer attention to domestic politics, writes Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby.

Australia-Philippine relations have remained steady in the last couple of years, but neither partner can afford to rest easy. Some interesting developments are rooted in the domestic dynamics of the Philippines, where preparations for the 2022 presidential elections have begun.

While the Duterte administration’s so-called ‘pivot to China’ is no secret, it is unclear whether members of the country’s security community share the perspective of the current political leadership. The 2020 study on National Security Priorities and Agenda of the Philippines: Perceptions from the Filipino Strategic Community is helpful in providing empirical evidence on the points of convergence and divergence within the Philippines’ national security apparatus.

The study surveyed military and uniformed personnel, civilian bureaucrats within and outside the security sector, as well as academics and representatives from the private sector. It consisted of four categories: national security policy documents and approaches, an evaluation of the performance of the national administration, foreign relations, and security sector governance and reform.

The overall findings reveal two things. One, while the Philippines has sound policy doctrines, the devil is in the detail. It is in the implementation where challenges and loopholes emerge. This is indicative of the need to strengthen domestic structures. Another thing that the study reveals is the arbitrary prioritisation of internal and external security issues where decisions are mostly based on instrumentality and patronage politics.

The two most interesting findings germane to the Australia-Philippine bilateral relationship are the perceived national security issues on one hand, and the preferred security partner-countries on the other. The top three pressing national security issues based on the survey were the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorism and violent extremism, and the communist insurgency. The fact that terrorism is still high on the list indicates that the focus of the Australia-Philippine security cooperation is where it should be. In fact, the overarching framework of the Visiting Forces Agreement forms the backdrop of continuing engagement in this area.

Other issues are cybersecurity and disinformation. These are emerging but critical areas and strengthening cyber infrastructures can only improve the cooperative mechanisms that existing partnerships already have in place. This can likewise put partners in a better position to combat threats like terrorism and violent extremism, as well as improving the coordination mechanisms for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.

Apart from the perceived national security issues, the survey also found that despite the Duterte administration’s pivot to China, only 27.6% of the surveyed members of the Philippine strategic community prefer China as a security partner. The top three choices are Japan, the United States, and Australia. In fact, 80.2% of the respondents preferred Australia as a partner.

Given these findings, the Australia-Philippine bilateral relationship can indeed maintain its steady pace, providing that these domestic dynamics are considered. Of course, this may, in the long run, prove to be challenging, not least because of regional dynamics that have China as their crux. The pandemic may have pushed regional security concerns like maritime security to the background, but they are by no means resolved. While it may seem like business as usual in geopolitics and regional security, the real battle is brewing in the economic realm. Indeed, China has already made some headway here, including waging trade wars with the United States and Australia.

This is where diplomacy can play a critical role. There is a premium placed on the rules-based international order, and public diplomacy can ensure that this order remains as inclusive as possible without losing its moral foundations. With tensions remaining high, people-to-people connections now more than ever play a crucial, yet fundamental role. Transitioning to more online platforms necessitates retaining our human connections. People-to-people exchanges used to take the form of scholarships or exchange programs. Those should remain, but with a few tweaks to accommodate the new normal, perhaps merging these initiatives with Track 2 and think-tank engagements.

Thus, at the bilateral level, the Australia-Philippine relationship can continue its steady pace by paying even closer attention to domestic politics. The pieces are falling into place as 2022 nears and the comprehensive partnership needs to remain nimble if it aims to continue to be relevant. Meanwhile, at the regional level, geopolitical and security issues have been temporarily shelved, but it is the economic realm where we need to watch out. Managing potential problems requires tapping diplomacy channels and strengthening people-to-people connections as we transition to a post-COVID-19 world.

Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby is Associate Professor of International Studies at De La Salle University, Manila. This piece was first published in the La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 5 - Australia-Southeast Asia Relations: The post COVID-19 regional order.