Crossing the ‘laser’ thin line: A growing support for joint maritime patrols

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

The decision of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to expand the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the addition of four locations and the resumption of joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea with the United States has buoyed up the sentiment of Filipinos – whose patience has finally crossed the “laser” thin line and is now running very low due to the continued incursion of Chinese vessels in areas that are within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

During the recent visit of US Naval Operations chief Admiral Michael Gilday, where he separately met with Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Andres Centino and Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci, discussions delved on expanded Balikatan Exercises with more US and Filipino military personnel participating as the United States reiterated its commitment to conduct joint maritime patrols.

There is definitely a snowballing resolve among many nations to work together in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific and in supporting freedom of navigation, among them Australia, as seen in the recent visit of Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles.

In the meeting between the Australian Defense Minister with his Philippine counterpart, Defense chief Carlito Galvez, discussions centered on the strategic alignment between the two nations and the possibility of conducting joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea.

“We reaffirm the need to continue working together towards a common goal of maintaining a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific Region,” the Philippine Defense chief reiterated.

Australia and the Philippines have a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) that was ratified by the Philippine Senate in July 2012, and was described by then Australian Ambassador Bill Tweddell as “an important part of the strong and expanding bilateral relationship” the two countries share.

An online article titled, “The Philippines could be Australia’s most important defense partner in Southeast Asia” published last September in The Strategist (the commentary and analysis site of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute) written by Asian strategy and geopolitics expert and  International Institute for Strategic Studies fellow Euan Graham, underscored the potential of the Philippines to become “an indispensable partner” in the face of “demanding military scenarios that may confront the Australian Defense Force in the decade ahead” – for instance, a war over Taiwan or in the South China Sea.

Dr. Graham cited the location of the Philippines, plus the fact that it is a fellow treaty ally of the United States and its “potential willingness” to grant access and logistical support to Australian forces, as positives. And while the defense relationship between the Philippines and Australia may be “low profile,” it has “surprising depth and potential, meriting a closer look,” he said.

Graham points out that since 2015, the Philippines and Australia have been strategic partners and thus have “already established a notably broad-based and bilateral defence relationship. It has deeper historical roots than widely assumed. In World War II, Australian forces made an active contribution to the liberation of the Philippines, incurring significant losses at Lingayen Gulf. The newly independent Philippines and Australia fought side by side in the Korean War.”

President Marcos himself noted during the courtesy call of Minister Marles that “the future lies in strong alliances and in a united front in promoting again the values that we consider important to our countries.”

As correctly pointed out by Defense Secretary Charlie Galvez, counter-terrorism and maritime security remain as core pillars of our bilateral defense relations with Australia, noting that joint patrols in 2017 covering the Celebes and Sulu seas heightened defense cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia due to kidnapping and hijacking activities by terrorists.

Concern over maritime security, transnational crimes and terrorism prompted the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia to engage in joint patrols in 2017 known as “Trilateral Maritime Patrol Indomalphi” to secure their water borders from security challenges that include armed robbery against ships, kidnapping, transnational crimes such as human and drug trafficking, gun smuggling and terrorism in the region, particularly in maritime areas of common concern.

Support for joint maritime patrols is undoubtedly snowballing, with many agreeing to the earlier suggestion of Senator Francis Tolentino, vice chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, to form not just a “security triad” but a “quad” involving the Philippines, US, Australia and Japan. During the visit of President Marcos to Tokyo earlier, there were talks about the possibility of Japan and the Philippines forming a security triad with the United States.

The latest Pulse Asia Survey released earlier in January showed the US, Japan and Australia being the top three choices of respondents as nations that they want the administration to work with in terms of strengthened security cooperation to defend our national sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. The survey conducted in November-December 2022 had the same results as the June 2022 survey with the US, Japan and Australia emerging as countries that are most trusted by Filipinos.

An initiative of this type – meaning the joint patrols and a possible security quad with allies – has long been awaited by Filipinos to signal that no country should be allowed to claim the territory of others.

While the Philippines wants to maintain balance in the region and continues to adhere to an international rules-based order, there is no question that it also wants to maintain its territorial integrity and protect its national sovereignty.

President Marcos unequivocally stated: “This country will not lose an inch of its territory. We will continue to uphold our territorial integrity and sovereignty in accordance with our Constitution and with international law.”

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