Trump Would ?Love? Australia to Join Freedom of Navigation Operations

Published Feb 24, 2018 6:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

U.S. President Donald Trump said he would love the Royal Australian Navy to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea.

The comment came as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull conducted trade and security talks with Trump in the U.S. on Saturday. British Prime Minister Theresa May has already approved a freedom-of-navigation exercise and is sending an anti-submarine frigate through contested waters next month.

“We’d love to have Australia involved, and I think Australia wants us to stay involved,” Trump said.

An official statement from the White House followed stating that Trump and Turnbull expressed “serious concern” about the situation in the South China Sea. The Trump administration has accelerated the pace of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, angering China with at least four such operations in 2017. Most recently, on January 17, the U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Hopper carried out a freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Australia has previously avoided directly participating in the exercises, and Turnbull remained tight-lipped on the prospect: "Australia, as you know, defends the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world, but we do not want to speculate on operational matters.”

Australia's foreign Minister Julie Bishop said last week that U.S. warships, positioned in Darwin, could conduct freedom of navigation exercises from there, but she did also backed away from committing to Australia's direct participation.

During Turnbull's visit, Trump announced that a new U.S. littoral combat ship being built by Austal USA will be named the USS Canberra as a gesture of goodwill for the nations' century of cooperation.

“There are no greater friends than Australia and the United States,” said Turnbull. “Our two nations share a long history of friendship and cooperation and today remain the strongest of allies. For 100 years, since the Battle of Hamel, when U.S. and Australian troops first fought side by side, our two nations have faced every challenge together.

“Together, we look forward to working ever more closely together in these challenging times on the basis of trust, mutual respect, and mateship to shape a secure and prosperous century to come.”

The U.S. is Australia's largest and most important economic partner and by far the largest foreign investor in Australia.