February 23, 2023
MANILA — The Philippines and Australia discussed the possibility of pursuing joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), only days after the former held similar talks with the United States to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
At a joint press conference on Wednesday, Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Richard Marles said this was raised during his meeting with acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr.
“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,” Marles told reporters.
After the press conference, the Australian official met in Malacañang with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who told Marles that his visit would be “an important part of the response” to recent aggressive acts by the Chinese Coast Guard in the West Philippine Sea.
Marcos was referring to the Feb. 6 laser-pointing attack by the China Coast Guard (CCG) on a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol ship supporting a Navy vessel on a resupply mission to a military outpost in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines has condemned the incident and filed a diplomatic protest against China.
“I truly believe that the future lies in strong alliances and in a united front in promoting again the values that we consider important to our countries,” Marcos told Marles.
During the press conference, Marles emphasized that the Philippines and Australia were “completely committed to a global rules-based order.”
Galvez said both countries reaffirmed “the need to continue working together toward the common goal of maintaining a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific region.”
“The Philippines and Australia believe in the importance of collaboration among like-minded security partners to achieve a collective security and defense … in the region, where nations could freely exercise their sovereignty and sovereign rights while pursuing stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
Galvez said the prospect of joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea was built upon past patrols with Australia in Mindanao.
He oversaw the air and maritime patrols with Malaysia and Australia in Celebes and Sulu seas when he was commander of the Western Mindanao Command.
Besides the United States, Australia is the only other country with a visiting forces agreement with the Philippines, and Canberra has been holding maritime and counterterrorism training with Manila.
Marles said his government would send “one of the largest contingents” to the upcoming Balikatan exercise in April, the largest military exercise held between the Philippines and the United States.
The Philippines will also send observers for the first time to the Exercise Talisman Sabre, the largest military training between Canberra and Washington, to be held in Australia in August.
The possibility of the Philippines and Australia holding joint patrols comes on the heels of similar discussions between Manila and Washington about conducting joint coast guard patrols, including in the South China Sea.
On Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III called Galvez to discuss CCG’s concerning use of a military-grade laser against a PCG vessel near Ayungin Shoal.
“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,” according to a Pentagon readout.
The two defense chiefs also discussed the recent decision to resume “combined maritime activities in the South China Sea.”
But Retired Navy Rear Adm.Jude Ong cautioned that the idea of joint patrols with the United States and Australia remained “exploratory talks only.”
“So far, I have not sensed a firm resolve to commit to a strategy to reestablish control or even just presence in our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) on the part of the [Department of National Defense or the Armed Forces of the Philippines],” he told the Inquirer.