‘We cannot do this alone’: Philippines wants Australia in new alliance to stand up to China

Singapore: A new Quad alliance – comprising Australia, the United States, Japan and the Philippines – is being proposed to counter a rising Beijing amid escalating tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

Situated near geopolitical hotspots such as the South China Sea and Taiwan, the Philippines is beefing up defence ties with the US and Japan and is in talks with Australia about joint naval and coast guard patrols.

But as south-east Asia’s second most populous nation deals with increasingly menacing conduct from China at sea, a new four-way security alliance is being proposed in Manila.

Philippine Senator Francis Tolentino is pushing to deepen links with like-minded countries.Credit:AP

In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Francis Tolentino, the deputy chair of the Philippine Senate foreign relations committee, said a new quadrilateral pact between Australia, the US, Japan and the Philippines could be effective in pushing back against Beijing.

“The enhanced cooperation would probably ensure that any aggressiveness on the part of any other country would be contained,” he said.

“I think working together, which has been done before, would bode well for the continuation and preservation of regional peace and security. It is for me, a way to check China’s assertiveness in the region.”

In a photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, a Chinese coast guard ship shines a laser at a Philippine vessel last month.Credit:AP

Australia, the US and Japan are members of the existing Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, along with India. The grouping angers China, which regards it as an Asian version of NATO that endangers peace and stability.

The formation of another such bloc would likely further rile Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime, but Tolentino said it made sense given the Philippines’ existing defence alignment with the US and Australia and its moves to also establish a visiting forces agreement with Japan.

“There’s a natural reaction [for China to be unhappy]. But I think that’s the only way … we cannot do this alone. Australia cannot do this alone. They had a problem before with Solomon Islands,” he said.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at at a Quad summit in Tokyo last year.Credit:AP

“Australia has a bigger role to play because I think Australia has the wherewithal insofar as assisting similarly or aligning with similarly minded countries. Specifically, you have the technology, you have the industrial base and cybersecurity capabilities which we don’t possess.”

Tolentino said the proposal was being discussed by the Philippine Senate foreign relations committee, whose chair is Imee Marcos, the elder sister of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos jnr.

Marcos has swung the Philippines back towards the US, its long-term treaty ally, since succeeding Rodrigo Duterte as president. Duterte entertained closer relations with China during his six-year term in which he even threatened to tear up the deal under which American troops rotate in and out of the country.

Under an extension of its Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, the US will be given access to four additional military bases, three of which may be on the island of Luzon facing Taiwan.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos jnr has moved to strengthen relations with the United States and its allies since taking office last June.Credit:Getty Images

It is events in the South China Sea that are causing the most angst, however, for Marcos, who has vowed not to cede an inch of maritime territory.

Filipino fishermen have long been subjected to harassment from the Chinese coast guard and militia vessels in the disputed, resource-rich waterway and this week it emerged that the Philippines had lodged 77 diplomatic protests with China since Marcos took office last June.

The most dramatic of the incidents occurred in February when a Chinese ship shined a laser at a Philippine coast guard boat, temporarily blinding some crew on board.

Australia is no stranger to such behaviour – in February 2022 a Chinese Navy destroyer in the Arafura Sea pointed a laser in the direction of a Royal Australian Air Force plane.

Defence Minister Richard Marles signalled on a trip to Manila last week that Australia was considering entering into joint patrols in the South China Sea with the Philippines.

US military exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea last year.Credit:Getty

“As countries which are committed to the global rules-based order, it is natural that we should think about ways in which we can cooperate in this respect,” Marles said during the visit, which coincided with the start of six weeks of military drills between Australian and Philippine troops in southern Mindanao.

John Blaxland, professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Australian National University, believes the pros of such deeper engagement far outweigh the cons.

“Alarmists will say it is inviting trouble. I don’t buy that,” he said. “China’s approach is it will take [steps] until it meets resistance. So far, it has met little resistance. It will stop when it meets resistance because it does not want to cross the kinetic threshold of war.

“I think it’s important we offer whatever support we can to help our neighbours to demonstrate their own resolve. These countries are under a lot of pressure to simply give up and to let China have what it wants. It’s not, in my view, in Australia’s interest for that to happen.”

Australia supports Manila’s claims to territory in what the latter calls the West Philippine Sea, recognising a landmark tribunal decision in The Hague in 2016 that ruled in the Philippines’ favour and against Beijing’s historic claims.

China, however, continues to declare most of the South China Sea as its own under its nine-dash line and has flexed its muscles by building artificial islands in the area and militarising them.

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