On April 17, 2001, three Royal Australian Navy warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait. This was soon after a Chinese fighter collided with a US EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft, forcing it to land on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The Navy transit through this most sensitive of straits for China, though defensible under international law, was challenged by the Chinese navy and an official protest followed from Beijing. There were worries relations with Australia would suffer. However, things soon blew over, as the US-China EP-3 stand-off was resolved and the episode is barely remembered now as a footnote in Navy history.
The 2001 incident makes for an instructive contrast with the current situation in the South China Sea and the developing debate about whether Australia should actively support US assertions of freedom of navigation and overflight around the Spratly Islands, where China is building several large artificial islands with the potential to serve as military bases.
How times have changed. Foreign warships, the US Navy included, are highly unlikely now to transit through the Taiwan Strait without an invitation from Beijing. The prospect of Australia sending even a reconnaissance aircraft over the Spratly Islands, hundreds of miles from China's coast, has become so controversial that a former head of the Office of National Assessments writing for the Lowy Institute Interpreter this week warned against following the US into "an ill-considered adventure" in the South China Sea.
Critics who are suspicious of the "freedom of navigation" banner point out that commercial and military principles are often casually conflated, exaggerating threats to merchant shipping in the South China Sea. This is a fair point, but it does not mean the narrower US concern with military access is a straw man. Others worry about the muddying complexities of what military activities might be legally permissible around reclaimed features whose original status as rocks would still afford them a 12 nautical-mile territorial sea and airspace.
Challenges to US Navy ships and aircraft in the South China Sea are already occurring well beyond what China can legitimately claim as territorial sea or airspace. Despite this, US behaviour around the Spratlys has been less cavalier than commonly portrayed. Surveillance aircraft have maintained stand-off distance from the reclaimed features, including the recent televised P-8 surveillance mission with a CNN crew on board, despite media reports that it flew directly over Fiery Cross Reef.
Where the US and potentially Australia have erred is in publicly trailing their plans so far in advance. That only invites tension in the build-up to actions, or accusations of weakness if the talk is not followed through. By contrast, the US response to China's East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone - flying over it with a pair of B-52s - was done quickly and clinically and was announced only after the fact. China's response was relatively muted.
Applying an overly legalistic lens to the freedom of navigation issue risks losing sight of the underlying strategic concern that over time China will use its growing military power to restrict foreign military access to the South China Sea at large. Right or wrong, this perception has tipped the US into taking a more activist posture in recent weeks. Although the US Navy is most obviously affected, creeping restrictions would affect all littoral states in the South China Sea, including the ability of the ADF to operate across much of south-east Asia.
If Canberra decides to actively support US freedom of navigation operations, a balance will have to be struck between avoiding tokenism within the alliance and not provoking China. A middle-ground course of action should also demonstrate an independently defined Australian concern to uphold the basic principle of access to the commons, but it does not have to parrot the US approach to freedom of navigation.
Beyond the immediate focus on overflight in the vicinity of China's land reclamation projects in the Spratlys, a sustained international presence in the South China Sea might be required. This need not be confrontational towards China, and the flexibility of naval platforms allows for some creativity in how they are used.
The Five Power Defence Arrangements grouping Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Malaysia and Singapore offers a useful framework here. Its operational ambit already extends to air and naval exercises off Malaysia's Peninsular coast. Broadening these on an ad hoc basis to the water off east Malaysia would inter alia assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea at a much lower risk of escalation with China. The presence of two south-east Asian countries in particular advertises that this is not a narrow concern limited to the US and its formal allies.
Being seen to ride in on the coat-tails of a US-led operation would be the least effective option in terms of signalling to China that there is a genuine, international concern to preserve navigational freedoms - and it would be unhelpful for Australia's image in the region.
Dr Euan Graham is director, international security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.