Australia was wise to resist the subtle American pressure to join its patrols in the South China Sea near islands disputed by China and the Philippines.
In February and March, two American admirals were sending strong hints that this is what Australia should do in support of the United States in so-called freedom of navigation operations. Had Australia followed this course, what would have amounted to a mere gesture of support for the US, would have been very harshly viewed by China, Australia's biggest trading partner.
Had Australia got involved it would have been the only friend or ally of the US to have done so. Nobody else – not Britain, Singapore, India, New Zealand or Canada – has been tempted.
Had Australia signed up to a South China Sea "flag-flying" exercise, the recent shift in the Philippines – a traditional centre for American naval positioning in the region – would have highlighted our folly.
The Philippines position has moved. Populist president-elect Rodrigo Duterte is talking about not only riding a jet-ski to the disputed territory but of actually negotiating with China about the prospect of jointly developing the islands.
Duterte has placed on the agenda the prospect of pragmatically elevating economic considerations above the constant tensions of disputes over sovereignty.
Given this new dynamic, Australia did the right thing in not being part of America's freedom of navigation patrols, which took in territory disputed by China and the Philippines. It would have been even worse had Australia mounted its own patrols along the US routes.
Sensibly, the Turnbull government employed diplomacy as confirmed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in her statement of February 17:
"We do not take sides on the competing maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea … We urge restraint and we urge that all parties settle their differences peacefully."
Labor should take note
Australia respects the right of parties to negotiate, or indeed arbitrate. In the case of the Philippines' arbitration, it is seeking a ruling on whether reclaimed islands generate maritime zones … a clarification of international law. It is not seeking a determination on the merits of the respective maritime claims.
To have gone down the other path, Australia would have antagonised China in a very high-profile fashion in support of Philippines policy that is now being recast.
Australia would have looked foolish and rash to our friends and neighbours in South-east Asia. Thankfully this has been avoided. Caution proved the wiser response.
Australia, as a strong trading nation with a very legitimate interest in the maintenance of open maritime trading routes, still conducts aerial patrols in the South China Sea. It has done so since the 1980s. Notably, these don't mimic the US practice of testing Chinese claims. They are not provocative.
Recent events should also serve as a valuable lesson to Opposition leader Bill Shorten. Labor's Defence spokesman Stephen Conroy hinted in January that he might be open to the suggestion of US-style patrols. The change of president in the Philippines should give Labor's leader cause for more sober reflection.
Australia's national interests are very delicately poised between economic and broader strategic considerations. The relationship with the US will always be important but so too is the deepening relationship with China, as emphasised by the recently struck China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and the Abbott government's decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank against the advice of President Barack Obama.
In the dynamics of the South China Sea, the more cautious approach so far adopted by Australia is working. It is preferable to any knee-jerk reactions Australia may end up regretting.