AUSTRALIA is reaffirming its relationship with Asean this week when it hosts a special summit in Sydney, but the Philippines is missing out on much of the opportunities.
The message to be conveyed to the visiting delegates and leaders is that Asean is important to Australia and key to the prosperity and stability in the Southeast Asian region, said an Australian official of the task force organizing the summit.
Earlier, President Rodrigo Duterte announced he was skipping the first-ever special summit with Australia. He is, instead, scheduled to attend the Philippine Military Academy graduation ceremony on March 18, the last day of the two-day leaders’ special summit in Sydney.
What he will miss in Australia includes participation in high-level discussions on boosting economic ties in several areas, including energy, infrastructure development, manufacturing, professional services, agriculture, tourism and aviation. The summit will also promote small and media enterprise (SME) linkages and regional cooperation against growing terrorist threats, like the one seen in the five-month seige of the southern Philippine city of Marawi in 2017.
Australia is not a new partner of Asean or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional bloc of 10 countries that includes the Philippines. Australia became Asean’s first dialogue partner in 1974, but it did not register much among Australians until more recently.
Today, Asean is Australia’s third-largest trading partner. But Australian officals say that they have barely scratched the surface, so to speak.
Barely on the radar
“Australians often aren’t aware of the Philippines as a tourism or business destination,” Tamerlaine Beasley told The Manila Times. She is a consultant for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and she is the founder and managing partner of Beasley Intercultural, a consultancy firm that helps Australians learn the business culture in Asia. She will be the master of ceremonies at the SME event of the special summit this week.
She added, “It’s a slow process educating the Australian community about Southeast Asia, and we are all doing our best. I know the Filipino government is doing a lot.”
When Australians look to do business in Asia, they naturally look at China, Japan and India because of their size, she said.
According to Australian government data, only five Asean countries were on its list of the top 15 bilateral trading partners. The Philippines is not on the list.
And even though bilateral trade between Australia and the Philippines favors the former, the same five Asean countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand – were bigger export markets than this country. Australia exports about A$2.4 billion (about P97.9 billion) worth of goods to the Philippines, and imports only about A$771 million (P31.5 billion) from this country, according to Australian government data.
Beasley said that the Philippines could invest more in promotions, including tourism.
In a meeting in Sydney with Asean journalists including one from The Manila Times, Beasley explained that Thailand, for instance, far outspends the Philippines in tourism promotion. She added that the investment has been paying off, with about a million Australian tourists visiting Thailand every year.
“Key advantages for Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore are very cheap flights on Australian and associated airlines,” Beasley said in a follow-up interview on e-mail. “Jetstar direct flights to Thailand for example have made a huge increase in Australian tourism there.”
She was not aware that the Philippine budget airline Cebu Pacific already flies to Australia and has been spending money there on promotions.
In terms of sunshine industries in the Philippines, Beasley mentioned the business process outsourcing or BPO sector.
“Australians are interested in BPO, but there needs to be a lot of education for the market in Australia to understand how exactly this works and the benefits,” Beasley told The Times.
The Philippines is not exactly starting from nothing.
Amanda Gorely, Australia’s ambassador to the Philippines, said that there were some 280 Australian firms doing business here, many of them in the BPO sector and in mining.
Like Beasley, the ambassador told The Times that the Philippines could do more to promote tourism, as more Australians were drawn to Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia.
When it comes to the Philippines, Gorely said that Australians’ knowledge about the country was limited to Manila.
She told The Times, “I was not surprised about the people, because I’ve already met Filipinos and saw what lovely people they are.”
“I was surprised at how many places you could see,” she said, adding that her visits to Iloilo and Coron, Palawan, were the best for her so far.
Loving the islands
Lisa Butson, an Australian who recently graduated from college, said, “It is true that many Australians choose to holiday in Thailand and Indonesia, but I did not want the typical experience in Asia.”
Instead, she spent a semester in 2016 at De La Salle University in Manila as a New Colombo Plan fellow.
Australia is promoting the New Colombo Plan as way to increasing people-to-people linkages between Australia and the Asean member states. Under that program, students from Asean are invited to study in Australia, and Australian students also get to go to universities across this region. While not many of them go to the Philippines, there are some, like Butson, who do.
“I chose the Philippines, because I wanted to experience something different,” Butson told The Times.
“In terms of attractions there is truly something for everyone (in) the Philippines,” she said. “I was lucky enough to travel around the country during my time. From Bohol, Palawan and Cebu in the south, to Vigan, and Banaue and Sagada in the north, the country is truly breathtaking. I enjoyed the history in Manila and around Intramuros.”
Butson said the Philippines was heaven for a foodie like herself.
“Anyone who hasn’t tried adobo or lechon or halo-halo really needs to,” she said. “I don’t think I can say the same for balut.”
There were some even less enjoyable experiences than trying that Southeast Asian delicacy, mainly traffic congestion.
“I have traveled previously and I don’t think I was prepared for the shock of the traffic in the Philippines,” Butson told The Times. “It won’t prevent people from traveling to the Philippines, or me from returning.”
“I would like to add that I truly have fallen in love with the Philippines,” she added. “I think of it as a second home. The people are the most generous and hospitable I have ever met in my life. They are so friendly, and kind, and have a love of life that I aspire to have.”
Missing out again
If there are others like Butson who love the Philippines as much, President Duterte will miss that.
The Diplomat, a magazine on current affairs in the Asia-Pacific region, recently reported, “The absence of Duterte presents a missed opportunity not just for the Philippines but also for Asean as whole.”
The report on its website also mentioned that Australia “views the conference as an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment of strengthening cooperation with its neighboring states through Asean as reflected on its Foreign Policy White paper published in 2017. It considers the active participation of the Philippines critical due to both state’s share democratic values and history between its people.”