Philippines and Australia eyeing joint patrols in South China Sea

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza
and Alyssa Nicole O. Tan,

THE PHILIPPINES and Australia plan to hold joint patrols in the South China Sea, a Canberra official said on Wednesday, amid China’s increasing aggression in the disputed waterway.

“We did talk today about the possibility of exploring joint patrols and we will continue that work and we hope that comes to fruition soon,” Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense chief Richard Marles told a news briefing in Manila with Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito G. Galvez, Jr.

“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,” he added.

In November, Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed to elevate the two countries’ relationship to a strategic partnership.

Mr. Galvez told the briefing counter-terrorism and maritime security remain the “core pillars” of Philippine-Australia defense relations.

He said they agreed to continue working together to maintain a “free, open and secure” Indo-Pacific Region.

Mr. Galvez also thanked Australia for its “consistent support” for a 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea.

Aside from the South China Sea dispute, the Indo-Pacific region has also been beset by the escalating tensions between China and self-ruled Taiwan.

The United States, a major security ally of both the Philippines and Australia, has continued to challenge China’s influence in the region.

Mr. Galvez said both the Philippines and Australia recognize the importance of collaboration between like-minded security partners to ensure nations “could freely exercise their sovereign rights” in the region while “pursuing stability and prosperity.”

He said the Philippine Navy and Air Force would boost cooperation with their Australian counterparts.

The Philippines and Australia are set to establish a regular defense ministerial meeting. Mr. Galvez said he would meet with Mr. Marles in Australia to explore joint patrols and training between their armed forces.

Mr. Marles said later this year, the two countries would sign a strategic partnership deal  “which comes on top of the first meeting” between Mr. Marcos and his Mr. Albanese last year.

He said Australia would boost its Indo-Pacific endeavor with more naval components, with the Philippines being a central component of it.

“We are seeing growth in the complexity of the exercises that we are doing,” he said. “Indio-Pacific endeavor is another exercise that Australia pursues. It has a heavy naval component to it. The Philippines would be very central in the Indo-Pacific endeavor this year.”

Australia and the Philippines have an existing status of visiting forces agreement.

Meanwhile, the United States on Wednesday discussed proposals to deepen defense cooperation with the Philippines, including joint maritime activities in the South China Sea, its Defense department said in a statement posted on its website.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Mr. Galvez on the phone about “concerning developments” in the disputed sea.

“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,” according to the statement.

“Secretary Austin reaffirmed the department’s commitment to bolstering the Philippines’ defense capabilities and capacity to resist coercion as the allies develop a security sector assistance roadmap,” it said.

The Philippines this month filed a diplomatic protest against China as it accused its coast guard of endangering the crew of a Philippine resupply ship by pointing a military-grade laser at it on Feb. 6.

Beijing has said its coast guard had used a handheld laser to provide signal directions and ensure navigational safety.

Mr. Austin reiterated US commitment to uphold Philippine rights in the waterway based on a 2016 ruling by a United Nations-backed arbitration court that invalidated China’s claim to more than 80% of the sea.

“An armed attack on Philippine armed forces, aircraft and public vessels, including those of its Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea, would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” according to the US Defense statement.

Both Defense chiefs also discussed opportunities to expand security cooperation with Japan to uphold a rule-based international order and ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.