May 19, 2023
MANILA – Australia is set to provide drones, training and other related technology to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to beef up its border protection capabilities, as China steps up its military presence in the disputed South China Sea.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced this at a joint media conference with Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo in Manila on Thursday. Her three-day visit, which ends on Friday, also coincides with the annual joint military drills conducted by Manila and Canberra.
“We want a region that is predictable, that operates by agreed rules, standards and laws, in which sovereignty is respected. We want to work with the Philippines to support Asean’s vital contribution to regional peace and security, including through maritime training,” said Ms Wong.
The foreign minister on Wednesday visited the PCG’s headquarters, where Filipino coast guard officers shared their experiences patrolling the South China Sea.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, which was invalidated by an international tribunal ruling in 2016. The Philippines is among the South-east Asian nations challenging Beijing’s claim.
Ms Wong said Australia also plans to share information and provide technical assistance to the Philippine government to help the country deal with illegal fishing in its territorial waters.
Talks are still ongoing between the two countries to conduct joint patrols in the disputed South China Sea. Manila also has similar discussions with its other military allies, the United States and Japan.
Ms Wong said they are still discussing the “best pathway to take this forward”.
Australia, one of Manila’s only two treaty allies along with the US, has been boosting its defence and security assistance to the Philippines in recent months to help counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Australia has consistently backed a 2016 international tribunal ruling that said the eastern parts of the South China Sea that fall within Manila’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) belong to the Philippines. Filipinos call this area the West Philippine Sea.
China refuses to recognise this ruling and has, instead, ramped up its military and island-building activities in the South China Sea. Manila has also filed multiple diplomatic protests against the reported Chinese harassment of Philippine vessels and fishermen in the disputed waters.
From May 10 to 12, the PCG installed five additional buoys in the waters near Flat Island, Irving Reef, Loaita Island, Lankiam Cay and Whitsun Reef within the country’s EEZ. Dozens of Chinese military vessels continue to swarm these areas.
“We are committed to continuing Australia’s longstanding presence in the region, including in the West Philippine Sea, South China Sea. We are open to cooperating with all our partners to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight, and the Philippines is a longstanding, important security partner for us,” said Ms Wong.
Apart from maritime cooperation, Ms Wong said Australia’s Official Development Assistance for Manila for 2023 to 2024 is at A$89.9 million (S$80 million). This will support programmes covering economic growth, education, disaster and climate resilience, as well as peace and stability in southern Philippines.
This is on top of the A$10.95 million that Australia has already pledged, to establish an immunisation information system as well as a laboratory network and surveillance system in the Philippines.