Australia Signs On for South China Sea Patrols With Philippine Forces

Philippine and Australian troops disembark a landing craft together off Zambales during Exercise Alon, Sept. 2023 (Australian Army)

Published Sep 11, 2023 9:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

Australia has confirmed its intention to join Philippine forces on maritime patrols, throwing extra weight behind efforts to deter Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

In a ceremony held Friday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese agreed to upgrade military relations with the Philippines to the "strategic" level. Australia is one of two nations with a visiting forces agreement with the Philippines, and the signing ceremony suggests a commitment to renewing and strengthening longstanding defense ties. 

Under the leadership of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippines has reinvigorated ties with the collective West - particularly the United States - and has deemphasized connections with Beijing. Under former President Rodrigo Duterte, cultivating Chinese investment took priority over confronting Chinese challenges to maritime sovereignty, and Duterte argued that Philippine forces would be outgunned in any confrontation with China. But over the past year, Chinese encroachment in the Spratly Islands has galvanized Philippine public opinion, giving Marcos an opportunity to pivot to other partners - partners who support its territorial integrity. 

At the ceremony Friday, Albanese reiterated Australia's backing for Philippine maritime boundaries. "Australia’s position on that will continue to be consistent, as we have always been, including recently over issues relating to the South China Sea," he said. To reinforce this support, Albanese signed an agreement to set up bilateral patrols with Philippine forces in the South China Sea. 

“A word of thanks to you, Mr. Prime Minister . . . you have made very clear that the claims that are being made upon our Philippine maritime territory are not valid, have not been recognized and are not consistent with international law,” Marcos said at the signing. “To have friends like you, and partners like you . . . encourages us to continue down that path.”

The United States is finalizing its own maritime patrol pact with Manila, and a spokesman for the Philippine National Security Council expects that it will be done by the end of the year. The deal is widely expected to include the U.S. Coast Guard, which can provide military presence with less risk of escalation. In June, Beijing closely scrutinized a joint drill between U.S. Coast Guard and Philippine Coast Guard vessels for signs of a future partnership.

In the meantime, the U.S. is providing moral support and reconnaissance. On Friday, during a standoff at sea between Philippine and Chinese forces, an American P-8 Poseidon orbited overhead at low altitude, cameras watching.