Australia and its Navy are in an awkward spot, caught between China and the US in the full glare of a global media spotlight shone on the South China Sea.

Two Royal Australian Navy ANZAC frigates are due to arrive tomorrow in China's naval base Zhanjiang for a port visit, ahead of live-fire exercises with the PLA Navy's South Sea Fleet scheduled to start on Monday.

There was a rumour earlier this week that the exercise might be cancelled. This is evidently not the case, and speculation has turned to the possibility that, after the exercise concludes, the two ships might sail through the disputed Spratly Islands region in a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) similar to the one conducted by the USS Lassen earlier this week. But according to Brendan Nicholson, writing in the Australian today, the Turnbull Government has decided not to commit the frigates to such a demonstration. According to Nicholson, 'for the two ships to carry out such an exercise directly after accepting Chinese hospitality would be considered by Beijing to be highly insulting.'

The unfortunate coincidence of the scheduled RAN exercise with China's Navy and the start of US FONOPs puts Australia between several jagged rocks (submerged, or otherwise) and a hard place, narrowing our room for manoeuvre.

Worse still, the AFR also reported today that a senior PLA officer has warned Australia against involvement in any freedom of navigation activity, as this would 'only bring trouble' and China 'will take strong measures to resolve this'.

In this context, if Canberra does not commit either a ship or aircraft to some demonstration in fairly short order, it will create the impression of being compromised in China's embrace. One can imagine how China's state media will employ the photo-opportunity of America's closest ally engaging in a goodwill visit and live-fire exercises alongside the same Chinese warships that are likely to be shadowing US Navy vessels in the coming weeks. It could become a full-blown public relations disaster.

Sending the two frigates within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied features in the Spratlys on their way home from Zhanjiang would be discourteous. However, avoiding offence is not a basis for foreign and defence policy – and it is bad tactics when dealing with Beijing. Canberra must be alert to the damage that could be done to our alliance relationship if we are seen to have prioritised naval diplomacy with China over a clearly missed operational opportunity — presented by the frigates' presence in the South China Sea — to show solidarity with the US.

If the ANZACs' visit to Zhanjiang is to go ahead, then the live-fire exercise should be called off to minimise our potential embarrassment. If the ANZACs are not diverted on their way home, then Australia should commit to some other operational assertion in the Spratly Islands sooner rather than later. An overflight by a P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, as originally suggested back in June, would at least provide a quick fix. But as James Goldrick has argued, 'freedom of operation' assertions need to be made repeatedly, independently, non-provocatively and without fanfare.

Photo by Flickr user Royal Australian Navy.