Last week, the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation and the Griffith Asia Institute co-hosted a Philippines–Australia Track II dialogue in Manila, focusing on the security dimension of the relationship. It brought together academics, analysts and practitioners to talk about the security challenges facing both countries, as well as their policy responses. A key message for Australia was the need to think about options for further strengthening our strategic ties with this important Southeast Asian state beyond the battle for Marawi.

The terrorist siege in that southern Philippine city provided Canberra with an opportunity to boost defence relations by supplying much-needed assistance. The provision of surveillance support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, in the form of AP-3C Orion aircraft, was particularly valued. Since then, the Australian Defence Force has stepped up its engagement by training Philippine soldiers in combined urban operations to enhance their capacity to address similar scenarios in the future.

In 2017, Australia released its Foreign Policy White Paper, which offers a comprehensive framework to uphold Australia’s security and prosperity. It reiterates the country’s commitment to continue engaging its partners and as such, is hinged on an outward-looking perspective and a preference for a rules-based region. This overarching thrust is concretized in five objectives: to promote an open, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific, to create business opportunities and stand against protectionism, to ensure the safety of Australians, to promote and protect international rules, and to step up support for the Pacific countries.

Experts are quick to identify the implications of the White Paper on bilateral and regional relations. A task like this usually calls for a temporal scope that begins with the now and towards the future, and whose spatial horizon is centered on Australia and outwards. I will upend this logic. Instead of looking forward, I will look back in order to uncover what needed to be in place for Australia to construct such a vision of the present and, consequently, of the future. Similarly, instead of looking outwards, I will highlight how Australia’s view of the region is in itself a reflection of its own understanding of its place in international relations. Temporally and spatially, therefore, the White Paper embodies certain presuppositions that needed to exist and to be present in order for Australia’s comprehensive framework to make sense and ultimately, to guide the country’s actions. So in view of this, I argue that the implications of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper can only be determined if we are able to tease out the foundations on which it stands. In this regard, I offer three underlying conditions that form the backdrop of the White Paper and that color Australia’s onward and outward path.

During the briefing given by the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) to members of Congress last May 30, 2018, senior government officials led by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Allan Peter Cayetano and Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana shed more light on the evolving Philippine foreign policy. The hearing revealed how inadequate the country’s diplomatic resources are in terms of dealing with China (i.e. no dedicated China desk, understaffed Asia-Pacific desk), as well as the challenges and opportunities posed by China’s rise for the Philippines. The need to develop a think-tank to focus on the myriad WPS issues was also raised to provide government with research-based policy recommendations. I focus my analysis on what I consider as the three main takeaways from the two-and-a-half-hour public hearing, namely: 1) accomplishments made by government in WPS since assuming office in 2016; 2) preference for a quiet approach in asserting Philippine position and; 3) appreciation of the broader geopolitical context.

The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at Washington’s venerable Center for Strategic and International Studies has once again revealed its bellicose pro-US bias in its analysis. AMTI Director Gregory Poling and Research Associate Conor Cronin have posted an article in War on the Rocks lamenting the slow implementation of the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Co-operation Agreement (EDCA). 

Poling and Cronin argue that “if implementation of the agreement continues at this rate, the national interests of both the Philippines and the United States will suffer.”  In particular, “the Philippines will likely lose its maritime rights in the South China Sea … “, and “the United States will be seen as a paper tiger unable to protect its allies or defend freedom of the seas.” This is a gross exaggeration of the situation and its likely outcome. More important it demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the fundamental factors at work.  Unfortunately this biased ‘expert’ opinion was ‘reported’ more or less word for word by The Inquirer. The main addition was to paraphrase Philippines analyst Richard Heydarian’s critique that “Duterte should have threatened China by bringing back US forces to the Philippines.” Some of the same nationalists who are clamoring for the Philippines to take action against China would probably be leery of this proposal.