Since the start of Battle for Marawi in late May 2017, attention has tended to focus on the development of a stronger partnership between Australia and the Philippines in the areas of counter-terrorism and enhanced training for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). But in parallel, there have been significant developments in bilateral cooperation on maritime security, as the Philippines Navy (PN) acquires new assets and seeks to develop new capabilities. This paper explores the evolution of that element of the evolving defense and security partnership between Australia and the Philippines and the drivers of closer ties. It observes that not only is there a growing intensity in bilateral maritime security cooperation, but also that there has been a shift from non-traditional to more traditional, harder-edged, activities.
The framework in which this maritime security cooperation takes place is made up of three key agreements: the 1995 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperative Defense Activities; the Philippines-Australia Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), signed in 2007, which was ratified and came into force in 2012; and the 2015 Comprehensive Partnership agreement. A fourth – a logistics support agreement – was promised in the Comprehensive Partnership declaration but has not yet been agreed. The 1995 MoU created a Joint Defense Cooperation Committee to coordinate activities, while the 2012 SOFVA brought into being a set of legal arrangements to facilitate those activities. The 2015 Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Partnership, for its part, observed past and ongoing cooperation, including high-level dialogue, but was vague about the specifics of future plans, other than floating the idea of the logistics agreement.
Within this framework, a number of maritime security initiatives have developed, alongside Australian Defense Force (ADF) and AFP involvement in army, air force, and joint exercises. The most of important of these is the annual Maritime Training Activity LUMBAS, involving the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Philippine Navy (PN), which began in the early 2000s. In the past, LUMBAS has focused on a range of activities, including ship-to-ship communication, humanitarian and disaster relief, anti-piracy, anti-narcotics, and managing a number of other contingencies.