Canadian Navy makes waves in Western Pacific

The Royal Canadian Navy's Halifax-class frigate HMCS Ottawa is seen out at sea in an undated photo from its official Facebook page. [Courtesy, Facebook]

A dangerous encounter between a Chinese jet fighter and a Canadian helicopter over the South China Sea has called attention to Canada’s heightened interest in the Western Pacific, including participation in patrols through the disputed Taiwan Strait.

In the October 29 incident, first reported by CNN, a helicopter was flying off the deck of the frigate HMCS Ottawa over international waters east of the Paracel Islands when the Chinese warplane began circling the helicopter, firing flares and at one point passing within about 30 meters of the Canadian aircraft.

Days later, the HMCS Ottawa joined up with the U.S. destroyer USS Rafael Peralta for what Reuters said was their third joint transit through the increasingly troubled Taiwan Strait, in this case shadowed by three Chinese warships.

While Canadian naval activity in the region seldom attracts international attention, the latest incidents appear to have been no surprise to Chinese authorities.

“We have reiterated many times our firm position on Canadian warplanes conducting reconnaissance near China’s territorial airspace,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was quoted as saying at a November 3 briefing.

“We hope Canada will refrain from its inappropriate behavior to avoid the situation from becoming more complicated,” Wang said.

Naval visits to the Western Pacific are not new for Canada, and relations with China were not always so fraught. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the same Canadian frigate, the Ottawa, was welcomed on a port visit to Shanghai with banners and cheering crowds just six years ago.

But relations deteriorated after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, at the request of the United States in 2018. Shortly afterwards, China arrested two Canadian nationals, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in what was widely seen as retaliation.

The men, popularly referred to as “the two Michaels,” were freed in September 2021, on the same day that Meng was released after Washington dropped its request for her extradition.

Other recent irritants have involved a series of complaints about Chinese interference in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 elections, including funding for favored candidates and disinformation campaigns.

Canada’s growing concern over Chinese behavior — and its willingness to react militarily — is reflected in an Indo-Pacific Strategy document released by the government a year ago and updated in July.

“China’s rapid and dramatic modernization of the People’s Liberation Army, including its offensive technological capabilities and geographic reach, has caught the region’s attention,” the document says. “As China becomes more assertive and grows in influence, Canada is stepping up as a reliable partner in the region to promote security and stability across the region and at home.

“Canada will increase our military engagement and intelligence capacity as a means of mitigating coercive behavior and threats to regional security,” the document said.

The document notes that since 2018, Canadian naval assets have participated with several other countries in operations to help enforce U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea in response to its nuclear and missile activities.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Armed Forces told VOA that the frigate HMCS Vancouver and a CP-140 Aurora Air Detachment have just completed a tour in support of that mission, while two other Navy vessels are currently operating along with the Ottawa in the region.

Looking ahead, the Indo-Pacific Strategy document calls for Canada to “augment its naval presence, including by increasing the number of frigates deployed on to the region where it will conduct forward naval presence operations, uphold international law of the sea, including the U.N. convention, and conduct collaborative deployments with its allies and partners.”

It also says Canada will “expand existing military capacity building initiatives and launch new training programs that advance joint priorities and interoperability with regional partners, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam, including in the area of Women, Peace and Security.”

Whether Canada would participate in any military response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan remain an open question, in the view of several experts.

“Canada has not made specific proclamations around its position around a Chinese invasion of Taiwan,” said Mark Norman, a retired vice admiral and former vice chief of defense staff, in a telephone interview.

“I’m not sure Canada actually has a position, and I’m sure that position would change day to day depending on who you ask. And even if Canada had a position, I’m not sure it would be comfortable telegraphing that position,” he said.

Norman said he believes Canada’s response “would be multileveled, in terms of a diplomatic response, an economic response and military response.”

But he said, “It’s extremely limited what Canada’s able to do in the region. And what Canada is able to surge into the region.”

Rob Huebert, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary, also pointed to Canada’s shortage of military resources to contribute to any fight with China.

“Our navy has engaged with the Japanese, Americans and South Koreans, so we have the ability to send one, maybe two frigates along with a submarine,” he wrote in an exchange of emails.

“We are now down to about 35-37 pilots so unlikely that we would send our F-18s. It’s still several years before we begin to receive our F-35s so those maybe if the conflict is far enough in the future,” Huebert wrote.