The theme of this conference, Connecting the Spokes, implies a hub. In general terms, both the Philippines and Australia tend to view the US, perhaps also China, as hubs around whose interests and values we in this region revolve – or in multilateral terms, of course ASEAN, although that leaves us in Australia at one step removed. But if we’re talking bilaterally, the hub around which our relationship’s spokes revolve comprises trade, investment and economic relations.

In Australian dollar terms, merchandise trade between the countries fell 15% to $2.7 billion in 2018. That makes the Philippines merely Australia’s 28th largest merchandise trading partner. Trade in services – chiefly tourism and students – has the Philippines in 21st place. Australia, meanwhile, is the Philippines’ 22nd target for exports and the 13th source of imports. Mutual investment is also thin. Australia has invested about $9.6 billion in the Philippines, but only about a tenth of that are directly in operations and assets, while the rest are in shares.


In 2017, US President Donald Trump announced a new Indo-Pacific security strategy of fortifying partnerships in the region. The strategy advocates a Free and Open Indo- Pacific (FOIP), the crux of which is the active participation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad, which includes the US alongside Japan, Australia, and India). As such, the strategy presupposes strategic convergence amongst the members of the Quad in terms of what “free and open” and “Indo-Pacific” mean. However, while the Quad values a rules-based international order, each member has in place different sets of mechanisms towards achieving that end. This is indicative of the members’ preference to be independent of a US-led umbrella. It is precisely the ambiguities surrounding the FOIP that pose two problems for Southeast Asia. First, the ambiguities surrounding the strategy engender an uneven reception by Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Second, a free and open Indo-Pacific likewise poses a problem for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The paper concludes by identifying strategies to strengthen the conceptualization of the FOIP and thereby make it resonate more with Southeast Asia. These include broadening the scope of the strategy and improving the US’ bilateral relations. In addition, the set of recommendations confronts the waning role of ASEAN and the need for new types of arrangements, not least of which are minilaterals, to address shifting regional realities.

Manila-based think-tank Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress (APPFI) and Brisbane-based Griffith Asia Institute (GAI) co-organized the 2019 Philippine-Australia Dialogue on July 18-19, with the support of the Australian Embassy in the Philippines. This year’s theme was “Connecting the Spokes” in reference to the hubs and spokes model with the United States as the center.

To ask how to connect the spokes is also to ask how to create a regional order in our own image. This echoes Australian Ambassador Steven Robinson’s call to not sit back in the face of great power competition. The following are ways to connect the spokes, which can serve as lessons on how to improve bilateral relations and craft a more resilient regional security architecture.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 千里之行,始於足下.

For me, that first single step was deciding in 1979 to take graduate studies at the University of the Philippines and to specialize on contemporary China. This was what launched what has become a 40-year long sojourn -- and counting -- as a China watcher. Wherever my career path took me – at one time or another as an academic, an armchair activist , a government analyst, an author, an editor, a policy adviser, a public speaker on international relations, an advocate of people’s diplomacy, a keen observer of global affairs - sometimes nationalist, sometimes internationalist - China always rose to the front and center of my work.