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Europe eyes the Philippines as Asian security anchor

July 5, 2023

Strategic ties between European countries and the Philippines are set to grow as leaders recognize the importance of countering China's rising military activity near Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Two coast guard ships at sea
China is keen to exert control over the South China Sea and its resourcesImage: Aaron Favila/AP/picture alliance

Amid improving military ties with the United States and Japan, the Philippines appears ready to also include European countries within its security architecture as it steps up opposition to Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea.

A new EU-Philippines subcommittee on maritime cooperation was formed last week, around the same time that a senior French military official visited Manila to appeal for greater military cooperation.

Analysts reckon that under Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took over as president 12 months ago, the Philippines has reverted to its more traditional pro-Western alignment and taken a more assertive stance in the South China Sea, a maritime area of global economic importance.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea as its territory and there are ongoing tensions over Chinese Coast Guard vessels exerting control, for example, over maritime resources like fishing grounds.

In response, the United States and other Western countries carry out "freedom of navigation" exercises in the disputed waters.

In early March, Washington announced that it was engaged in talks with Manila to hold joint South China Sea patrols with the Philippines as well as with Australia and Japan.

A map of the South China Sea with a nine dash line

Europe eyes a larger security role

Around the same time, the EU's special envoy to the Indo-Pacific region, Richard Tibbels, said during a visit to Manila that the bloc has "a strong interest in making sure that freedom of navigation and overflight continue and that the global trading system is not affected by increasing tensions in the region."

To that end, a new EU-Philippines Subcommittee on Maritime Cooperation was established last week "to strengthen cooperation on maritime matters," according to a report published after the third EU-Philippines Joint Committee meeting that took place in Brussels on June 30.

"The EU and the Philippines agreed to continue to work together closely and stand up for the rules-based international order, the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-aggression," the post-meeting summary stated.

Also last week, the French Joint Commander of the Asia-Pacific and the French Armed Forces, Rear Admiral Geoffroy d'Andigne, visited Manila to underscore France's interests in improved security relations.

During a meeting with the Philippines' Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, d'Andigne reportedly invited the Philippine Army to take part in joint exercises in French Polynesia and New Caledonia for disaster relief training, and to improve their information sharing capabilities.

Maintaining maritime freedom near the Philippines

Several European navies have engaged in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, and Germany announced in May that it would send a two-ship task force to the area next year.

After Manila said in March that it would make public maritime incidents in its claimed areas of the South China Sea, following harassment by the Chinese Coast Guard, the German ambassador to the Philippines praised the move and pledged more support from Berlin.

"We need to strengthen partnerships with like-minded countries in the region. This can involve cooperation on maritime security, information-sharing, joint military exercises and cooperated diplomatic efforts," Ambassador Anke Reiffenstuel said at a press conference.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimated last year that around €3 trillion ($3.26 trillion) worth of trade, or 21% of total global commerce, passed through the South China Sea in 2016.

"The EU and European powers have a vital interest in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a crucial sealine of communication for Europe," said Alfred Gerstl, an expert on Indo-Pacific international relations at the University of Vienna.

At the moment, however, it's an uphill battle for European countries to prove their commitment. Even the French maritime presence in this area, which is the strongest among the European powers, is still "severely limited," Gerstl told DW. "Naval and security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations is therefore crucial," he added.  

Philippines builds strategic partnerships

In early February, Manila agreed to expand the number of bases that the United States military could use in the country. 

Days later, President Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to a new defense arrangement that allows Japanese troops to join training exercises in response to natural disasters and humanitarian needs in the Philippines.

"The willingness of the Marcos Jr. administration to confront China more openly presents a window of opportunity to deepen security relations with the Philippines," Gerstl said.

US relations with the Philippines soured considerably under the country's former President Rodrigo Duterte, who led a brutal crackdown on the drug trade that left more than 6,000 people dead, many from extrajudicial killings by the police.

Duterte responded to European criticism over these human rights violations by rejecting European aid.

Cooperation has significantly improved under the Marcos Jr. administration, although EU parliamentarians remain concerned about the alleged lack of accountability for those who committed abuses in the past. 

A delegation of European legislators concluded that the situation was "better" during a visit to the Philippines in February.

However, the EU should not be overconfident in attempting to develop security relations, said Joshua Bernard Espena, a resident fellow at the International Development and Security Cooperation, a Manila-based think tank.

It requires greater investment and sustained interest from the Europeans, as well as development in non-military related areas, he told DW.

"Humility matters to earn the trust of countries like the Philippines in crafting what direction they should take amidst geopolitical uncertainty," he said.

Building trust through trade

Alfredo Pascual, the Philippines' secretary of trade and industry, said last week that he expects talks over a free trade agreement, which stalled in 2017, to recommence within three years, and for a deal to be finalized by 2028.

Pascual, who met with the European Commission Vice-President and Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis in Brussels last week, also pressed the EU to extend the Philippines' inclusion in the EU's GSP+ preferential trade scheme.

Its inclusion expires at the end of 2023 and although the Commission has proposed the legislation to prolong it until 2033, it awaits approval by the European Parliament and Council.

If it isn't extended by then, the imposition of tariffs and duties would affect Philippine-EU trade, which was worth around €16 billion in 2022. Trade Secretary Pascual visited the Hague last week to drum up more investment from the Netherlands.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn