By Joyce Ann L. Rocamora
MANILA – Australia and the Philippines’ engagements are expected to increase in 2023 and beyond as the two countries move to upgrade their partnership from comprehensive to a strategic one, with focus on adapting to a rapidly changing security environment in the region.
In an exclusive interview with the Philippine News Agency (PNA) this week, Australian Ambassador HK Yu PSM said the two nations are hoping to formalize the strategic partnership “sometime this year”.
“The elevation of the partnership, actually, to a large extent, recognizes the complex world that we’re living in. The region that the Philippines and Australia are living in is becoming more and more challenging, there’s no question about it,” she said.
She said the international law-based order is under enormous pressure, the “kind that we haven’t seen since the end of World War II”.
“You just have to look at what’s happening in Ukraine. Russia’s terrible, immoral and illegal invasion of Ukraine. And you have to see just at our doorsteps in the South China Sea the kinds of activities that are happening there and you realize how important true friends and strategic partners are,” she said.
“This strategic partnership is really in recognition of that as well that in that kind of world, we need our friends, true friends, partners, and good neighbors working even closer together,” she added.
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When asked what Canberra expects from this improved relations, the envoy’s response was straightforward.
“What we want to achieve under the strategic partnership is to actually even further integrate our economies, because ultimately, economic power is your strategic power,” she said.
“It’s in Australia’s interest to ensure that the Philippines is strong, resilient, and prosperous, because it’s only then that our region will be a stable, prosperous and secure place,” she added.
She said Australia is inclined to support Manila achieve post-pandemic recovery and jointly benefit through greater economic interactions.
Once strategic partnership is declared, Yu also hoped Manila would see Australia as a “partner of choice” when procuring its assets.
“For example, if there is something that we can produce, we would really like the Philippines to choose us,” she said, citing as example vessels to patrol Philippine waters.
As “comprehensive partners,” Australia already supports Manila in various fields, such as peace efforts in Mindanao, agriculture research, education, women empowerment, defense and security, and trade, among others.
Canberra allocates nearly AUD90 million in development assistance to the country annually, at least 47 percent of which go directly to peace-building in the south.
From 2022 to 2023 alone, the Australian Embassy said the Philippines received an estimated PHP3.1 billion in official development assistance.
This includes PHP2.5 billion in bilateral funds to help mitigate threats to “regional security and peacebuilding efforts in Mindanao and advance inclusive economic growth, including through social protection programs for the poorest and most vulnerable”.
The remaining PHP648 million, on the other hand, would be coursed through global and regional programs.
The Australian Embassy said this “longstanding and responsive” development cooperation is in line with the Marcos administration’s agenda for long-term growth.
“Our development program for the Philippines is Australia’s fifth largest in the world. And when I say this, lots of people are really surprised that Australia pays so much attention to the Philippines,” Yu said.
“Our program has been spent more recently in Mindanao because we were really there along with you when the Marawi siege happened [in 2017].”
Yu said Australia would continue its support and is in fact crafting a new program to sustain the progress achieved in the Bangsamoro peace efforts.
“For Australia, we really want to continue to show our support because we recognize that it’s not all done and dusted yet. And it is important that all supporting countries are there to provide assistance through the next few years,” she said.
The envoy did not elaborate but said the fresh assistance would focus on the independent decommissioning body.
“It’s a very natural resource rich region. So if you can get the peace bit done well, and if that can be sustained then you have this amazing opportunity to draw in foreign investment,” she said.
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Further, Canberra takes a holistic approach in responding to Manila’s development priorities.
For fiscal year 2022 to 2023, the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research has invested AUD4.5 million or approximately PHP162 million to make the country’s agricultural products more productive, marketable and internationally competitive, and to protect the rural poor from climate change.
“We have around 220 projects, since over the period of four decades, where the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research has been working actively with the Philippines, on projects that really matter,” Yu said.
“They’ve actually done a whole heap of things that are actually now converting into real commercial outcomes for the Philippines. And we will continue to do that,” she assured.
Education is also high in Australia’s priorities in the Philippines.
So far, it has built 509 classrooms naationwide and helped establish and reform the Department of Education’s systems and structures to inform sound decision and policy making, among others.
It likewise provides scholarships annually to Filipino students.
Yu said Manila continues to get a “big share” of allocated slots for the Australia Awards given Manila’s importance to Canberra.
“So this is what we are trying to do to ensure that we’re providing just a different type of education to Filipinos and different type of experience by actually living in Australia for that one or two years,” she said.
Australia and the Philippines’ anticipated move to bring relations to a new high this 2023 will come eight years after the joint declaration on comprehensive partnership was signed in 2015. (PNA)