Experts: Strategic partnership to bolster maritime, economic security amid China’s expansion

Maritime experts are pushing for the enhancement of maritime and economic security for the country through stronger partnerships with like-minded states to navigate rising tensions caused by China in the West Philippine Sea.

Such strategy was discussed during a forum led by international think tank Stratbase ADR Institute in partnership with the Embassy of Australia in the Philippines titled “Forging Bonds: Exploring the Nexus Between Maritime Security and Economic Security" in Makati City on Thursday.

Acting Deputy Ambassador Johanna Stratton of the Embassy of Australia in the Philippines opened the discussion by emphasizing the “unprecedented” maritime cooperation between Manila and Canberra. 

She also stressed the need for alliances to ensure “a stable and secure Indo-Pacific region, where our maritime and marine environments are protected.”

 “Australia is deeply concerned when countries pursue claims or engage in activities that are inconsistent with international law, when they undertake activities that are provocative and destabilizing, when they don’t respect the freedoms and rights of others, and when they advance their claims by intimidation or coercion,” Stratton said. 

Stratbase President Dindo Manhit, for his part, said bolstering cooperation with partners like Australia is a strategic move. 

“We, at Stratbase ADRi, believe that enhanced cooperation with like-minded states is key to the Philippines achieving both maritime and economic security, and ultimately, promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Manhit said. 

“Amidst geopolitical and geoeconomic challenges, such partnerships are strategically necessary to foster regional stability and prosperity,” he added.

 International studies professor Renato de Castro, trustee and program convenor of Stratbase, said China's increased incursions in the West Philippine Sea should be seen not merely as a territorial dispute, but as a case of "a maritime power bent on expansion." 

Archipelagic Defense Concept

De Castro said the Marcos administration’s Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept (CADC), aimed at beefing up the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ capabilities in countering China’s maritime expansion, faces technical and financial constraints, thus the need for allies. 

“The U.S. and Australia stand out as the most capable and willing security partners in assisting the Philippines in developing its capabilities to transform the CADC into a viable defense strategy,” De Castro said, noting that both countries are major naval powers in the Indo-Pacific region. 

To leverage the Philippines’ treaty alliance with the US and its security partnership with Australia, De Castro said the country should push for a “Trilateral Australia-Philippines-United States (APUSA) Security Partnership that can advise, assist, and equip the Philippines in developing the necessary technical and material capabilities to implement its CADC.” 

He also suggests boosting the Australia-Philippines-U.S. trilateral military exercises, inviting Australian troops to Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites, and engaging the two countries in security dialogues.

Meanwhile, retired Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong floated the need to go beyond “ceremonial patrols every three months,” advocating for continuous 24/7 patrols instead.

 For DLSU biology professor Ma. Carmen Ablan-Lagman, scientific collaboration can serve as a diplomatic tool to foster peaceful relations, build confidence, and promote mutual understanding even in times of conflict. 

“As tensions in the West Philippine Sea escalate, collectively addressing issues such as managing fish stocks, reducing loss of biodiversity, preventing marine pollution, and extending humanitarian assistance in response to disasters without prejudice over territorial claims may be needed to build trust among participating agencies,” Ablan-Lagman said. 

She said the Philippines must expand its presence in the region not only through joint patrols and military exercises but also through initiatives focusing on sustainable fisheries, maritime transport, renewable energy, tourism, and waste management – given the global call to promote blue economy and keep the oceans healthy. 

Growing distrust in China 

China’s increased aggression in the region has led to a staggering 91% distrust rating among Filipinos, based on the results of a nationwide survey conducted by OCTA Research involving 1,200 respondents in March. OCTA Research President Ranjit Rye presented the survey results in the same forum. 

Majority, or 76 percent of Filipinos see China “as the country posing the greatest threat to the Philippines,” Rye added, while 61 percent support the Marcos administration’s response to the dispute with China. 

Despite this, most Filipinos seek further government action, with 73 percent preferring assertive measures such as expanded naval patrols and troop presence in the West Philippine Sea over diplomacy and other peaceful methods (72 percent). 

Moreover, 68 percent of respondents want to strengthen the Philippine military's capability to protect the country's territories.