Australia and the US celebrated “100 years of mateship” during Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s trip to Washington last week. But the price of that friendship could be a game changing naval confrontation with China.

“Mateship” is a peculiarly Australian concept which honors loyalty and reciprocal acts of assistance between friends.

Mates come to each other’s aid when they are in trouble and stand up for each other when they are threatened. They can call in favors from each other in times of crisis.

In the context of US-Australian relations, the mateship was forged on every major battlefield of the 20th century, particularly when the US entered the Pacific War against Japan in World War II.

Amid all the self-congratulatory spin in Washington last week, US President Donald Trump suggested that his Australian mates might like to join the US in “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea, or even stage its own independent operations.

In Trump’s words: “We would love to have Australia involved and I think Australia wants us to stay involved.”

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (not shown) at White House in Washington, February 23, 2018. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Trump has racheted up pressure on Australia to up its strategic game while facing a major dilemma concerning its relations with China, its major trading partner.

The idea of Australian and US naval vessels steaming together through the South China Sea would be, to say the least, highly provocative to China and would have the makings for a major diplomatic incident.

The situation would intensify if they were joined by Japanese vessels at a time that country’s leadership aims to ditch its pacifist constitution.

Little wonder, then, that Australia has been back-pedalling on the concept ever since, even as local reports suggest that plans have already been drawn up for an independent Australian naval operation in the region.

The situation has also been confused by contradictory comments from Australia’s defense and foreign affairs ministers: while the defense establishment clearly sees China as a threat, foreign affairs officials have been at pains to say it is not.

Who are you backing? Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sits with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as they watch an AFL game. Photo: Reuters/David Gray
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sits with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as they watch an Australian football game. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

This is the mixed message equivalent of Trump planning confrontational naval exercises, while at the same time saying that Chinese President Xi Jinping is “somebody who I like and I think he likes me.”

While less challenging than a joint US-Australian fleet, any independent move by Canberra would justifiably be seen by Beijing as the action of a US proxy.

While there is clearly a lot at stake economically if the Australia-China relationship turns south on strategic concerns, its less clear the US will fill the financial gap under Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine, part of which calls on allies to pay more of their defense bills.

The emerging view is not that the US has gone into an isolationist shell so much as it is weary of doing most of the heavy lifting, not just in the Pacific but also at NATO and the United Nations.

The implications for Australia in this are significant, particularly at a time of the biggest arms build-up Australia has since World War II. It is almost as if Australia saw the Trump policy coming and has budgeted accordingly.

Much of Australia’s defense build-up is naval. There is a A$70 billion (US$54.6 billion) shipbuilding procurement program to acquire next generation submarines, frigates and patrol boats, while new destroyers and landing helicopter docking ships (Australia’s largest ships ever) have entered service in the last 18 months.

The Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Waller (SSG 75), a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbour. Photo: AFP
The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Waller (SSG 75), a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbor. Photo: AFP

For a mid-ranking power, Australia will soon have one of the most potent navies in the world, and much of it will be heavily integrated with the US in terms of weapons systems, maneuverability and training.

Culturally, the Australian Navy has moved away from its old British model in the last few decades and is now very much built in the image of the US Navy.

The drive behind the build-up is as economic as strategic. In regions such as South Australia, part of the build-up is economic as politicians seek to create new jobs and industry after the collapse of automotive manufacturing.

In defense and foreign policy terms, however, the message to China is unequivocal: Australia is nervous about the situation in the South China Sea and is responding with an unprecedented arms build-up, scheduled at A$195 billion (US$152 billion) over the next decade.

Like Trump and his contradictory comments on China, Australia lives in something of a parallel universe when it comes to potential conflict with Beijing. It enjoys the economic benefits of the relationship but images of Chinese bases in the South China Sea are apparent justification for more defense spending.

Independent Australian freedom of navigation operations in the area might upset that balance, causing now parallel universes to collide.