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  • William Paton


What was a Canadian warship doing 90 km off the Chinese coasts?

The author, a Canadian, muses over his breakfast in Beijing about why a rusty old Canadian frigate had obediently followed a US destroyer through the Taiwan Strait, off the coasts of the country with the world's largest navy.

by William Paton, Beijing 5 June 2023

I grew up in Canada, in a small town not so far from Montreal. When I was 29, I left Canada on a two-year contract to work in Botswana. Now I'm 67 and I still haven't gone back to Canada to live. The joke is that 'I got lost'.

But I was surprised recently to see that Montreal itself had gotten lost! The HSMC Montreal -- a Canadian warship -- had sailed out of Halifax Harbour in eastern Canada and somehow ended up in the Taiwan Strait on the opposite side of the globe! (See map.)

The initial reaction at our Beijing breakfast table was a gale of laughter. The thought of the Canadian navy foolishly trying to police the world, off the coasts of the country with the world's largest navy, seemed hilarious! The ferocious beaver was baring its chisel teeth at the dragon!

Map showing the Taiwan Strait and Halifax Harbour

However, the mood sobered as we remembered that provocations in a potential conflict zone are profoundly serious. Canada had done this before, just last year, but this time they had done so while China and Canada's Ministers of Defense were in a meeting in Singapore precisely to discuss security, and their heads of intelligence were also together in a rare conclave of spooks.

Crafted press releases of the USA and Canada stressed how their adventure was 'routine' and designed to 'protect freedom of navigation under international law'. Of course, they criticized the Chinese navy for 'recklessly' sailing too near in front of their passage. This has become a standard dramatic element in such stories, whether about fighter planes or warships near China.

More important is what was left out. For instance, the rusty, 31-year-old Canadian frigate was obediently following the USA -- a country that itself refuses to agree to The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS,1982). Yes, that's right! The power who so provocatively 'defends' the Law of the Sea off China's coast refuses itself to ratify it. The US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee has repeatedly made it clear that they find UNCLOS not in US interests. Canada only finally agreed to the Law in 2003, far later than China.

Also left out is that navigation is already quite free in the Taiwan Strait and has been since the end of the Korean War. By the time you read this at least another 100 ships will have passed freely through the Strait, just as they always do, but for trade or regular passage, not for war.

This highly hypocritical, cynical behaviour (and lying), may be scarily frequent but it is decidedly not routine and sane nations do not indulge in it. China would never sail one of its own ships halfway across the world just to skirt the coast of Vancouver or Nova Scotia. Nor will you see a Chinese destroyer or aircraft carrier sailing merrily through the channel that separates Miami from Havana 'just to keep it open'. Because that would be silly. That would be provocative and risky. That might even spark a war.



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