By Julio S. Amador III*
At the sidelines of the APEC Leaders Meeting in Manila on 18 November 2015, Philippine President, Benigno S. Aquino III and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signed the Joint Declaration on Australia-Philippines Comprehensive Partnership. In general, the comprehensive partnership agreement merely formalizes what has been a close and strong working bilateral relationship between the two sides.
What the comprehensive partnership is all about
Seventy years of diplomatic relations between Australia and the Philippines have deepened the ties between the two democracies. Emphasizing their shared values, the agreement states that the elevated relations are “grounded in shared values of democracy, respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law.” The agreement further ties the bilateral relations to regional developments, with both sides pledging that along with their “national independence, sovereignty and adherence to the rule of law”, they will “work together in regional platforms to continue to develop architecture supportive of security, stability and cooperation, and to promote confidence-building measures to minimize the risk of conflict in the region.”
The political aspects in the agreement focus on their commitment to ASEAN, shaping the regional and global environment, and adherence to and promotion of international laws including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On the economic front, the agreement emphasizes inclusive growth, deeper trade and investment cooperation, women’s economic empowerment, and the successful implementation of the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA). Defense ties were also strengthened with commitments to high-level defense consultations, assistance to Philippine defense modernization, and the future negotiation of a mutual logistic support agreement. These will build on the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), signed in 2007 with the concurrence of the Philippine Senate given in 2012, giving it treaty status.
The two parties committed to high level engagement in law and justice, education, and development cooperation. Countering violent extremism, enhancement of ties and investment in Philippine human resource development, and alignment of development assistance to Philippine priorities were included in the agreement. The two parties further identified the mechanism for consultation; the existing Philippines-Australia Ministerial Meeting (PAMM), as well as other meetings between leaders and ministers in bilateral or multilateral settings. It is not difficult to imagine that EAS summits and APEC meetings will feature regular bilateral meetings between the Philippines and Australia at the sidelines.
Implications for regional security
Australia and the Philippines are allies of the US, but the two countries are not in a treaty alliance with each other. This comprehensive partnership does not elevate the ties to an official alliance but nonetheless, it carries with it a formal understanding that Australia and the Philippines will work together more closely on those identified areas where their economic and strategic interests converge.
While not taking sides in the maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Australia has been very committed to the rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes in the region, emphasizing this commitment in statements and raising the issue with involved states in its bilateral meetings and in multilateral forums. The Philippines has seen Australia’s commitment to the principles that it espouses in the international arena and sees the latter’s statements as buttressing its case for the use of international legal regimes such as UNCLOS in peacefully settling disputes. Australia’s commitment to regional peace and stability are also important to the Philippines as regional tensions have been stoked by China’s assertiveness in recent years.
Australia’s habit of consulting and aligning its assistance with the Philippines’ priorities makes it a dependable partner in security, economic, and development cooperation. Thus, the Philippine side must take the lead in coming up with programs and projects in these areas where Australia could come in. As the impact of the power dynamics between China and the US continues to affect regional stability, the comprehensive partnership between Australia and the Philippines will serve as a model for how like-minded states can forge closer relationships.
The Philippines and Australia have agreed to develop a plan of action to implement the Comprehensive Partnership. Since this covers practically all areas of common interests between the two sides, one can expect the action plan to be in-depth and program-oriented – a sign of the close relationship of the two partners. The Comprehensive Partnership should be taken as a sign that Australia is deeply interested in the Philippines and the wider Southeast Asian region. It intends to play an important role both as a strategic and development actor. This willingness to engage the Philippines and the region on their terms and not on Australia’s terms alone displays diplomatic maturity. It also allows the two sides to share the burden imposed by the partnership.
With a new Philippine government in place after June 30 of this year, the two partners have the opportunity to further strengthen their ties and cooperate closely on strategic and development issues. As the strategic environment of the region continues to evolve, Australia and the Philippines should be able to rely on each other to work on old and emerging issues that may threaten them both. 70 years of bilateral relationship is showing highly positive results: the strategic and economic interests have converged further, and the political and diplomatic leadership of the two countries are seeing Eye to eye on most of the important issues.
Now that the Comprehensive Partnership is in place, the two sides can further deepen their ties by working on a plan of action that will benefit the peoples of Australia and the Philippines.
*Julio S. Amador III is the Deputy Director-General of the Foreign Service Institute.
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