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South China Sea: Australia, Philippines hit security upgrade

September 8, 2023

A new agreement lifting longstanding ties to a strategic level comes as China makes aggressive moves in the region. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos has thanked the Australian PM for his "strong support."

Anthony Albanese and Ferdinand Marcos celebrate their boosted ties during a meeting in Manila
The meeting beween Albanese and Marcos comes after Australian and Filipino troops held joint exercises in the South China Sea last monthImage: Earvin Perias/REUTERS

Australia and the Philippines boosted their ties on Friday amid fears about China's growing power in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited Manila for a meeting with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

The two leaders signed a strategic partnership agreement, where Australia and the Philippines would upgrade cooperation in areas such as security and climate change. 

Marcos on Philippine-Australian relations

"Australia is working with our partners, including the Philippines, to shape a region where sovereignty is upheld," Albanese said during a media briefing with Marcos. 

Marcos hailed the relations between the two countries as "terribly important" and praised Albanese's "strong support" for the Philippines.

China currently claims the entire South China Sea as its own territory in contravention of international law. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have all asserted sovereignty over parts of the sea.

Marcos has pledged to protect Philippine territory in the region and is seeking closer cooperation with its allies on the issue.

"To have friends like you and partners like you especially on that subject is very gratifying and encourages us to continue down that path," Marcos said during the meeting with Albanese, referring to the maritime dispute. 

Disputes between China and the Philippines in South China Sea 

The Philippines has said that China frequently harasses its vessels in the South China Sea.

China's coast guard said Friday that it had chased Philippine boats engaging in a resupply mission to a grounded warship in the region, which serves as a makeshift military base for Manila at the Second Thomas Shoal. 

China has deemed the grounding of the warship to be illegal and claims the Second Thomas Shoal as its own territory.    

The Philippines decried "illegal, aggressive and destabilizing" actions by the Chinese coast guard on Friday and said its resupply mission to the grounded warship is "legitimate."

The grounded BRP Sierra Madre ship at the Second Thomas Shoal
The BRP Sierra Madre, which dates back to World War II, has Philippine marines on board and is stationed at the disputed Second Thomas ShoalImage: TED ALJIBE/AFP

Australia backs ruling invalidating Beijing's South China Sea claims 

An arbitral tribunal ruling in 2016 found that many of Beijing's expansive claims over maritime territory in the South China Sea were invalid. China has refused to recognize the ruling.

"Australia supports the 2016 South China Sea arbitral award. That is final and binding. And it is important that it be upheld going forward," Albanese said on his Manila trip.   

Albanese is the first Australian leader to visit the Philippines in 20 years. Ferdinand Marcos' decision to move closer to Western countries such as Australia is a reversal from his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who sought strong security ties with China. 

wd/sms (Reuters, AFP)