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Philippines, Australia recommit to joint patrols in disputed waterway

Members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Australian (NARA & DVIDS Public Domain Archive/Released)
September 23, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Philippines and Australia said Friday that they would jointly patrol areas within South China Sea waters claimed by the Southeast Asian nation, as they showcased their capabilities in fighting off a potential invasion. 

Coordinated patrols will be necessary for keeping vital sea lanes in the waterway open, the Philippine and Australian defense chiefs said as the troops from the two allies took part in joint maritime exercises, amid international tensions in the territorially contested sea and over Taiwan.  

“We recommitted to planning bilateral joint patrols in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea and other areas of mutual interest,” Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. and his Australian counterpart, Richard Marles, said in a joint statement. 

“We committed to expanding some of our bilateral activities in the future to include other countries committed to sustaining peace and security in our region.” 

Earlier this month, the Philippines announced that it would be launching joint patrols in the sea with the United States this year.

Teodoro and Marles agreed to elevate the defense relationship and for Australia to host the Philippines in an inaugural defense ministers meeting next year. 

“We share a firm commitment to a peaceful, stable and prosperous region where all countries are free to exercise their sovereignty consistent with international law,” they said.

Marcos observes drills

Joint patrols have been on the drawing board since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office last year. 

Marcos attended amphibious exercises on Friday in San Antonio, a town in northern Zambales province that faces the South China Sea. It’s the same area where U.S. and Philippine troops held joint exercises in April. This time around, the Americans were assisting in the drills between the Filipinos and Australians. 

Marcos said he would discuss continuation of the exercise with his Australian counterpart, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, during Albanese’s expected two-day visit to the country in early September. 

“That’s certainly going to be part of the discussion that I will be having with the prime minister when he comes … to visit us here in the Philippines,” Marcos told reporters here.

Both countries, he said, would have to come up with new “strategies, ideas and agreements” in terms of boosting their security partnership, noting the training was a “very well-run exercise.”

Exercise Alon 2023 is the first amphibious exercise between Filipino and Australian troops. It opened in Darwin, Australia, on Aug. 14, and will end on Aug. 31.

The exercise has involved 700 Filipino and 1,200 Australian troops while about 150 U.S. Marines have participated in a support role, officials said. 

It is part of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavor to strengthen engagement and partnerships in the Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean region. 

Friday’s exercise involved Australian and Filipino troops, backed by the marines, practicing retaking an island seized by hostile forces.

Marcos, joined by the two defense chiefs, watched mock beach landings, assaults and helicopter insertion of forces on a Philippine naval base.

“It is an important aspect of how we prepare for any eventuality and considering that there have been so many events that attest to the volatility of the region,” Marcos said.

Teodoro said the drills were a testament to the hard work that the three allies had put into coordinating and planning the successful mission.

“But this mission is just a manifestation of where we want our defense and bilateral relations to be and it is close to coming from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic one,” he said, adding that regional security was essential to the “national securities of both our countries.”

Earlier this week, the Philippines successfully delivered supplies to its troops at a military outpost in the South China Sea despite attempts by the Chinese to block its ships from the disputed waters, Filipino officials said Tuesday.

Manila carried out the mission two weeks after the China Coast Guard fired water cannons at a Philippine coast guard ship that was escorting a convoy of boats bringing supplies to marines stationed aboard a rusty old navy ship in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.