Philippines emerges as frontline player

Appearing in Australian Financial Review, Defence feature, 29 November 2017

Philippines emerges as frontline player

Australia’s strategic links with the Philippines are quietly growing, on the twin fronts of maritime security and terrorism, and are likely to become even more important as Australia increases its own naval build-up.

“At one level, the relationship has been hampered by uncertainties over the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has a marked tendency for sweeping, colourful statements and not as much concern for human rights as many countries, including Australia, would like to see,” says Professor Benjamin Schreer, head of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University.

“But when I spoke recently at a dialogue held in Manila on deepening the relationship between Australia and the Philippines, there was a very receptive audience on the Philippines side. You have to remember, as well, that many people in the Philippines military were trained in the West, especially the US, and they have a natural sympathy in that direction.”

Rodrigo Duterte
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte


A critical point is that Duterte’s occasional pro-Chinese, anti-American outbursts have not been matched by actual policy moves. In fact, US-Philippines defence co-operation has continued to increase, with the country recently taking delivery of sophisticated American equipment for maritime surveillance, including an advanced Tethered Aerostat Radar System. There has also been an agreement with Japan on the transfer of equipment and training for reconnaissance.

Professor Schreer sees these moves as evidence that the Philippines government is extremely wary of China’s expansion in the South China Sea. This has been especially true since an incident in 2012 over the contested Scarborough Shoal area. In that incident, there were low-level clashes between China and the Philippines. The US brokered an agreement under which both sides would withdraw. The Philippines forces withdrew but the Chinese forces did not.

“To the Philippines, the lack of action by the US looked like a betrayal,” says Professor Schreer. “But the government, especially Duterte, is making a distinction between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. Duterte seems more disposed towards Trump, in part because of Trump’s own wariness of China and partly because Trump has little interest in human rights issues.

“In fact, Duterte has shown himself to be a pretty good player. He is aware that China is very concerned about the US building a relationship with Philippines which could lead the deployment of substantial forces. He sees that he has some strong cards to play and is willing to use them.”

So far, there has not been much opportunity for bilateral defence co-operation between Australia and the Philippines, mainly due to an asymmetry of forces. However, this is changing as the Philippines upgrades its naval capacity. In 2016 Australia delivered five decommissioned landing craft to the Philippine Armed Forces, and the PAF has ordered two modern coastal frigates from South Korea, so there may be the opportunity for joint naval security exercises in the future.

The more immediate concern, however, has been a dangerous insurgency by the Maute, a radical group in the south of the country that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State. The group based itself in the city of Marawi in the province of Lanao del Sur on the island of Mindanao, and carried out a number of terrorist actions, including a bomb attack that killed 15 people in the city of Davao, Duterte’s hometown. The Mindanao-Sulawesi-Sabah triangle has long been seen as volatile but the Maute and connected radical jihadist groups are better-organised and better-equipped than other groups that have appeared.

Defence Minister Marisa Payne has made clear that Islamic State should not be allowed to gain a foothold in south-east Asia through affiliated groups or proxies. She has also noted that as Islamic State loses its territory in Iraq and Syria there has been a stream of battle-hardened, well-trained militants into Asia, an issue which should be treated as a serious regional concern.

Australia provided two Orion spy planes to provide surveillance support to PAF soldiers fighting militants in and around Marawi. About 80 ADF personnel played a critical role in training PAF soldiers in anti-terrorist urban warfare, drawing on their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In October the Philippines government declared victory in Marawi, after a five-month siege and intense fighting that left large parts of the city in ruins. The battle left about 800 people dead, including 600 militants. However, few people believe that the insurgency is finished, with the surviving radicals still receiving supplies from allied groups in Indonesia as well as funding from other IS affiliates.

“The loss of Marawi was a very significant blow to the terrorist groups, but they still have the potential for attacks, as well as the capacity for re-generation,” says Professor Schreer. “One important change is that the PAF is putting more resources into intelligence gathering, and Australia may be able to assist with specialised training in that. They largely missed the threat posed by the insurgents until they had entrenched themselves in Marawi. They do not want to be caught like that again.”




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