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Aboard HMCS Regina – A Chinese coast guard vessel recently came within about 700 metres of HMCS Regina during a rare transit by a Canadian warship through hotly disputed waters in the South China Sea and Strait of Taiwan.
The unexpected incident near the southern mouth of the strait briefly caused some anxiety on Regina’s bridge. However, Canadian sailors praised the Chinese mariners for their seamanship and courtesy as a series of Chinese warships and coast guard ships – never more than three at a time – shadowed HMCS Regina and the Canadian replenishment ship, MV Asterix. The Chinese followed the Canadian ships for more than 1,000 kilometres as they made their way north through the Strait of Taiwan to the East China Sea.
The voyage through the strait put the Canadian ships in waters between China and Taiwan, which is independent but considered part of China by Beijing.
Chinese interest in what the Canadian ships might be doing appeared to increase as they entered the strait, much of which is claimed by both China and Taiwan, and is considered a potential flashpoint if the two countries ever come to blows.
Taiwanese warships and coast guard vessels also followed the Canadian ships as they transited the strait.
“I never felt there was anything unsafe or unprofessional in anything the Chinese or Taiwanese did,” said Regina’s captain, Cmdr. Jake French. “What we observed were common maritime practices by the Chinese and Taiwanese.”
Tensions have risen between Canada and China since Canada began extradition proceedings against an executive of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. But that had nothing to do with why the Canadian ships sailed through the strait, the commander said.
“This is not a statement,” he said. “We were taking the fastest route to the East China Sea to begin Operation Neon,” he said.
Regina and Asterix were in international waters at all times when in the strait and elsewhere during the voyage, French said, adding that the Royal Canadian Navy ships steered well clear of the internationally accepted norm of 12-nautical-mile territorial limits. Most countries, including Canada, consider the waterway international territory.
China now routinely shadows all foreign warships sailing in the South China Sea, the Strait of Taiwan, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea. They did so when HMCS Winnipeg sailed two years ago in the far western Pacific and again when HMCS Calgary made a similar trip through the Strait of Taiwan last year.
OP Neon is the Canadian name for a multinational operation to hunt for smugglers violating UN sanctions by transferring fuel to North Korea. As well as Regina and Asterix, the RCAF has sent a CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft to assist in finding the smugglers, who use small tankers to transfer fuel to North Korean ships in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea.
The UN sanctions are designed to pressure North Korea to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs, nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches by Kim Jong-Un’s regime.
For more than a week now, six different Chinese warships, usually operating in pairs, have played a cat-and-mouse game with the Canadians by bracketing or trailing their ships. The shadowing began almost immediately when they had completed a brief exercise with the Vietnamese navy after making a port visit to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, last week.
The Chinese observed an exercise involving the Canadian ships and three Japanese warships, including a helicopter destroyer that some analysts have described as a small aircraft carrier.
At one point, in shallow waters near the southern mouth of the Strait of Taiwan, the Chinese repeatedly hailed the Canadians to ask where they were headed and to tell them to take new course headings. The Canadians initially answered a few of the dozens of hails to identify themselves, but there were so many similar hails and answers that they finally stopped replying. Taiwanese warships also shadowed and hailed the Canadians. The Taiwanese sailed just to the east of the Canadians while the Chinese sailed just to the west, creating an interesting tableau on the sea.
Early in this leg of what has been a six-month voyage that has taken the Regina and Asterix from Victoria to the Middle East, the ships travelled within 25 kilometres of the Paracel Islands, which China, Vietnam and the Philippines all claim. On the outward journey to the Persian Gulf, the Canadian ships passed near the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by half a dozen countries in the region. To support their audacious claim to almost all of the South China Sea, the Chinese have built military airfields on several of the atolls and installed radars and other military facilities as well.
Matthew Fisher is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He was born in northwestern Ontario and raised there and in the Ottawa Valley. He has lived and worked abroad for 34 years as a foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail, Sun Media and Postmedia. Assignments have taken him to 171 countries. An eyewitness to 19 conflicts including Somalia, the Rwandan genocide, Chechnya, the Balkan Wars, Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, the two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan, Matthew was appointed as the first Bill Graham Centre/Massey College Resident Visiting Scholar in Foreign and Defence Policy in 2018.