While the United States has turned a new page in its relations with former adversary Vietnam, cracks in ties with long-standing allies the Philippines and Thailand present challenges for its foreign policy in Southeast Asia. The bid to strengthen its historical alliances in the region – and win a new partner – will test Washington’s ability to sustain its post-war hub-and-spokes system of influence while trying to enlarge it against the backdrop of China’s growing economic and political clout.

On his trip to Southeast Asia earlier this month, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper reassured allies and partners about Washington’s commitment to the region while he tried to roll back Chinese influence. The trip was the second multi-country visit he had made to the region in the past three months, signalling its strategic importance to the American concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Washington’s response to an array of challenges in Southeast Asia, from the South China Sea to its rivalry with China, may determine the US’ role in a mega-region it considers most consequential for its future.

This year’s Xiangshan Forum took place amidst serious domestic and international challenges for China. As the People’s Republic celebrated its 70th year anniversary early this month, protests in Hong Kong continue to rage and have even become more violent, while cross-Strait ties became more acrimonious. Concerns about the supposed detention of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang intensify. A partial trade deal with the United States brought some relief, but the end to the 15-month trade spat may still be out of sight. Tensions in the South China Sea continue despite enhanced confidence-building measures and ongoing negotiations to conclude a code of conduct. This said, the forum presented an opportunity for China to allay fears attendant to its rise. More importantly, it also displayed Beijing’s poise to play a greater security role.

This year’s theme “Maintaining International Order, Promoting Peace in the Asia-Pacific” cannot be more apt. Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, UN Arms Trade Treaty, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty unsettles multilateralism and non-proliferation. It also jeopardizes longstanding arms-control and confidence-building regimes. The abrupt departure of US troops from north-eastern Syria raises doubts about enduring American commitment to allies and to the multinational coalition to defeat terrorism. Indeed, the forum offered China the chance to project itself as the unlikely defender of a global security order besieged by unilateral attacks from its former architect and advocate. The forum may also respond to America’s vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, especially its attempt to revitalize alliances and partnerships with countries in China’s periphery.

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.

Background

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.

In science it is noted that terrestrial planets are situated in the “Goldilocks zone,” that is, the habitable or life zone in space where a planet is just the “right distance from a home star so that its surface is neither too hot nor too cold.” The Goldilocks zone in a galaxy thus allows life to develop and flourish. For decades the Australia-Philippines strategic relationship has been characterized by missed opportunities and strategic inertia. When the bilateral relationship has developed it has generally been through slow incremental engagement that, at times, has easily and quickly gone cold. However, the recent the terrorist attack on Marawi in the southern Philippines has injected new energy into the strategic dimensions of this bilateral relationship. Marawi, along with changing regional dynamics, has potentially opened up a “Goldilocks zone” movement in the Australia-Philippines strategic relationship, one in which the partnership could develop and flourish. The ability to capitalize on this recent rapid progress, however, could still easily stagnate especially as domestic politics in the Philippines could easily get too hot, burning the burgeoning relationship, or Australia could easily become distracted from its engagement letting the pace of progress stagnate or go cold. This means that the window of opportunity to cement a much deeper and more coherent bilateral partnership remains narrow. If not seized quickly this opportunity could easily prove to be fleeting.