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.

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.

Photo Source: CGTN

Economics and security issues are on the agenda of President Rodrigo Duterte's fifth visit to Beijing. The number of visits he has made thus far is indicative of the importance he attaches to the burgeoning bilateral relations.

China has become the Philippines' largest trade partner since 2016, its largest investor last year and is expected to be the country’s largest inbound tourism market this year.