Philippines and Australia advance defense cooperation in South China Sea
Canberra pushes for joint patrols with the Philippines, as Manila and Washington discuss same
By Jason Gutierrez for BenarNews 2023.02.22 -- The Philippines and Australia have agreed to formalize their "strategic" defense engagement through an annual meeting, their defense chiefs said Wednesday, as both countries look to counter Beijing's growing military influence especially in the South China Sea.
Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. and Richard Marles, his Australian counterpart, made the announcement after a closed-door meeting in Manila, according to BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service, on the same day that Washington also backed the Southeast Asian nation, whose coast guard was threatened recently by a Chinese ship during an incident in the disputed maritime region.
At a joint post-meeting press conference, Marles underscored "deep connections" between Australia and the Philippines, which already have been cooperating in anti-terrorism training in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao.
"[W]hen we start talking about our strategic interests and the matters that go to our nations, those discussions happen upon a really solid personal human foundation of trust, friendship and affection, and that matters," said Marles, who is also Australia's deputy prime minister.
At present, both nations "have a greater strategic alignment than we've had in any moment in our respective histories," he said.
"Later this year, we look forward to signing the strategic partnership between our two countries which comes on top of the first meeting between Prime Minister Albanese and President Marcos in November of last year," Marles told reporters.
He was referring to a meeting between Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last year in Bangkok during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
Marles said Galvez was expected to visit Australia soon as part of the official annual meeting in what he called "a formed institutional path."
Marles also pushed for the possibility of joint patrols in the South China Sea.
Marles said Australia was "deeply invested in asserting" the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which gives coastal states like the Philippines a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
"As countries which are committed to the global rules-based order, it is natural that we should think about ways in which we can cooperate in this respect. And so we did talk today about the possibility of exploring joint patrols and we will continue that work," Marles said.
Both countries are "looking at ways in which we can pursue joint patrols together in the South China Sea, and looking at ways in which we can do more exercises together," Marles emphasized.
Australia in the coming months, he said, would be sending "one of its largest contingents" to join Balikatan, the annual joint military exercises between the Philippines and the United States.
Marles echoed the sentiments of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III, who visited the Philippines early this month to negotiate more access for American troops to the country's strategic military installations. Since his visit to Manila, the U.S. and the Philippines have also been discussing the prospect of joint patrols in the South China Sea.
Both the United States and Australia, along with the United Kingdom, have formed a three-way security pact - AUKUS - whose primary aim is to blunt Beijing's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Earlier on Wednesday, the American chief spoke by phone to Galvez to offer his country's support after a China Coast Guard ship allegedly aimed a military-grade laser onto a Filipino vessel delivering supplies to Manila's outpost in the Second Thomas Shoal.
"Secretary Austin underscored the United States' commitment to supporting the lawful rights and operations of the Philippines in the South China Sea," said Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's spokesman.
According to Ryder, Austin reiterated that the U.S. was bound to come to Manila's aid in case of an armed attack on its military, aircraft, and public ships by a foreign power, as spelled out in the 72-year-old Mutual Defense Agreement.
"The two leaders discussed proposals to deepen operational cooperation and enhance the United States and the Philippines' shared security, including the recent decision to resume combined maritime activities in the South China Sea," he said, adding that Austin also reaffirmed his government's commitment to "bolstering the Philippines' defense capabilities and capacity to resist coercion."
Meanwhile on Wednesday, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said that one of its aircraft received radio challenges from the Chinese coast guard during a routine patrol flight in the Philippine EEZ.
The aircraft was flying over the Ayungin and Sabina Shoals when it received "inaudible radio challenges, both in English and Chinese, from CCG-5304 currently continuing to maintain presence in the area," the PCG said.
The incident occurred "despite diplomatic protests filed by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA)," the coast guard said in a statement in which it also released photos taken of vessels that it described as Chinese ships and boats spotted in the area.
"The PCG aircraft issued its own radio challenge emphasizing that it is conducting a [Maritime Domain Awareness] flight within airspace over the Philippine EEZ and directing CCG-5304 to leave the area immediately," it said.
During the patrol, the PCG airplane also "observed at least twenty-six (26) suspected Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels anchored in and around the vicinity of the shoal."
Galvez, for his part, underscored Australia's help in the Philippine military's efforts at controlling Islamic State-linked militants in the southern island of Mindanao.
Australia and the U.S. helped in intelligence gathering to chase pro-IS militants out of the southern city of Marawi in 2017 after five months of pitched battles that left 1,200 militants, government forces and civilians dead.
Galvez noted that a small contingent of Australian forces were currently engaged in joint training with Filipino forces in the south, and that this gave confidence to Filipino troops on the frontline.
"We are very thankful that the skills have been completely transferred to our soldiers. And we have seen now that terrorism has dramatically decreased in these areas," Galvez said, noting that since the battle of Marawi, there have been "very minimal" skirmishes in the area.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news agency.
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