ABOARD HMCS WINNIPEG IN THE EAST CHINA SEA — For the first time that Canadian sailors can remember, Chinese warships have shadowed ships from the Royal Canadian Navy.
“We have interacted with Chinese ships,” was how HMCS Winnipeg’s captain Cdr. Jeff Hutchison put it.
A pair of People’s Liberation Army Navy frigates came within three nautical miles of HMCS Winnipeg during a freedom-of-passage exercise the Canadian frigate conducted with U.S., Australian and Japanese warships late last month in the hotly contested South China Sea. The ships were shadowed for about 36 hours, Hutchison said.
“Whenever we are near an American ship the Chinese are there,” said the Winnipeg’s coxswain (or senior enlisted sailor), Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Sylvain Jacquemot. “There is not an American ship in the South China Sea that does not get shadowed by a Chinese ship.
“They were three miles away but there was not a level of hostility. We were both practising freedom of navigation. It was a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. They claim something that the world does not agree with. … They are very active these days.”
Lt. Cdr. Landon Creasy: â??We spoke with (the Chinese) two or three times by radio. They were exceptionally professional and polite.â? DND
China, South Korea and Japan are at loggerheads over claims to islands in the East China Sea, where Taiwan also has claims. But there even more disputed is the South China Sea, most of which China claims. Criss-crossed by cargo vessels, the sea has rich fishing grounds and large deposits of oil and natural gas. The waters have become a potential flashpoint since Beijing built a series of artificial islands atop coral reefs and sand bars there, with fighter jet-capable airfields and missiles now located there.
This expansion has created friction with Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, which have overlapping claims to the same tiny atolls and outcroppings. It has also angered Washington. The U.S. regards the South China Sea as international waters and not a Chinese lake, although some security experts believe that that is what it will eventually become.
As China is a major regional power in Asia it was to be expected that it would take an interest in the presence of a Canadian warship in the western Pacific, said the Winnipeg’s executive officer, Lt. Cdr. Landon Creasy.
“This was the first time to see them as real platforms” in 26 years in the navy, Creasy said, adding that “from a professional interest point of view, that was the highlight of the trip for me.
“We spoke with them two or three times by radio. They were exceptionally professional and polite.”
The proximity of the Chinese frigates was similar to what happened three years ago in the Baltic Sea when Russian warships followed HMCS Fredericton, on which prime minister Stephen Harper was embarked at the time.
A few days after the encounter in the South China Sea, a Chinese intelligence-gathering ship bristling with antennae and other electronic gear monitored the Winnipeg’s movements in as it entered the East China Sea, where it conducted exercises with a South Korean warship.
HMCS Winnipeg on a joint exercise with the Japanese navy. Cpl. Carbe Orellana/DND
Why had Canada sent warships through these contested waters? “Canada is a rule-of-law country. That is our stance on things,” Hutchison said. “There is a right to transit international waters.”
Even so, the Winnipeg was careful to do nothing that the Chinese military might have considered provocative.
“There was more than enough room to stay well clear of the Paracels and the Spratlys,” Hutchison said, referring to islands that are among the most heavily contested.
“Even if Canada were to recognize this claim (China) could only claim a 12-mile limit. We were 100 miles away.”
A couple of months ago, as part of the same deployment in the western Pacific, the Winnipeg and HMCS Ottawa came within 30 nautical miles of the Scarborough Shoals, far closer to the Philippines than China but occupied by the Chinese military. On that occasion, no Chinese vessels or aircraft came out to study them.
The Winnipeg and the Ottawa have one month left in what will be a five-month voyage before they return to British Columbia. In the case of the Winnipeg, which traveled a little further than the Ottawa, it has been an epic, 12-leg, 41,500-kilometre flag-waving odyssey. Port calls have included California, Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. The Ottawa visited many of the same ports and also made a visit to Shanghai to take part in a fleet review with the Peoples Liberation Army Navy.
Able Seaman Kristian Sinclair spots flags on South Korean naval ships on joint exercise with HMCS Winnipeg. Cpl. Carbe Orellana/DND
The the trip was a marathon training exercise, with young sailors seeking technical qualifications required for a career at seas. It saw multiple live-fire exercises with allied navies — a missile was fired off California — and crews from Canadian and allied ships practised sending boarding parties comprised of new Special Forces-like teams of sailors out in small boats to clamber aboard each other’s decks to simulate the boarding of ships carrying hostages or illegal cargoes. The concept of using reservists to provide force-protection during port visits was also proven during the voyage.
“Whether you are doing an exercise with Canadian and American ships off our coasts or with Japanese and Korean ships, we are spending that fuel, regardless,” said the Royal Canadian Navy’s commander, Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd, who was in South Korea. “The bottom line is you take your fuel wherever you are. You are paying the same whether you are over here or back in Canadian waters.”
Hutchison added: “The number of sea days required to force-generate must be done somewhere. Ships have to spend days at sea to train sailors. If we operate here in Korea, there is an even greater value.”
One of the emphases during the trip had been to learn ways to navigate the Malacca Strait, which is considered to be the world’s busiest maritime passages, Hutchison said.
“At a guess there are probably more ships going through the Strait of Malacca in one day than the Strait of Juan de Fuca sees in a month,” he said.
It was decided to visit the western Pacific to improve inter-operability with allied navies for the first time in several years. Another factor was that all the West Coast ships were done with a long-term refit and available after what Hutchison said was “was very successful, significant upgrade.”
Another reason was to express the Canadian government’s interest in the Asia-Pacific region. To that end, the ships held well-attended joint receptions with Canadian diplomats on their quarterdeck at stops along the way.
China’s push to develop a blue-water navy was dramatically emphasized last week when its first aircraft carrier visited Hong Kong. It sent warships to the Mediterranean Sea during the Libya crisis and has just established its first base overseas, a naval logistics facility near an important U.S. outpost in Djibouti. The trip was a fascinating course in geopolitics, Hutchison said. “Why, for example, it is clearly in China’s interest to be build ports in Pakistan and infrastructure in Sri Lanka?” he asked. “Who is allying with who today and for what reason? It is very complex.”
A Chinese navy formation, including an aircraft carrier, during military drills in the South China Sea in January. AFP/Getty Images
“If one wants to have any respect or gravitas you have to be in that region,” said Canada’s top soldier, Gen. Jon Vance, who visited the Winnipeg and the Ottawa in Singapore last month
“If you are not present you cannot really hope to have your voice taken seriously when it comes to opinions about security and trade. The security of the Straits of Malacca are important to us because a lot of trade goes through there.
“These are not threatening deployments. These ships are an important signal of Canada’s interest in safety and security and defence. The visit of a warship is a good thing for these countries, not for intimidation value but as a way to do diplomacy.”
The navy would for the foreseeable future be Canada’s lead military force in the Indo-Pacific, while the army and air force concentrated on other parts of the world, Vance said.
The HMCS Calgary and HMCS Vancouver would next year conduct similar operations in the western Pacific, Admiral Lloyd confirmed.