Canada Jumps Into Troubled South China Sea; To Patrol ‘Boiling Hot’ Region With US, Japan & Philippines

In a move that could further strain ties with China, Canada joined the Philippines, the United States, and Japan for a joint patrol in the contentious South China Sea, which has become an active flashpoint between Manila and Beijing in recent times.

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Canada, Japan, and the US together sailed into the South China Sea (SCS) for the first joint patrol with the Philippines as part of a multilateral maritime cooperation activity (MMCA) to preserve freedom of navigation and overflight.

The US Indo-Pacific Command (INDPACOM) announced that the Royal Canadian Navy sent its Halifax-class frigate HMCS Montreal to join the US Navy’s destroyer USS Ralph Johnson, the Philippine Navy’s Gregorio del Pilar-class patrol ship BRP Andres Bonifacio, and the destroyer JS Kirisame of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. The statement stopped short of revealing the location of the joint mission.

Although the Canadian Navy participates in routine missions in the Indo-Pacific region, including the South China Sea, this is the first time it has done so in a multilateral patrol effort. The participation attains significance in light of recent events involving the Philippines and China.

The mission comes after China aggressively obstructed a Philippine replenishment expedition in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. In the skirmish between the two sides, at least eight Filipino naval sailors were hurt, and one of them lost a thumb.

The Philippines strongly opposed the incident and accused Beijing of ‚Äúillegal and aggressive‚ÄĚ action. Manila has undertaken joint patrols with the US, Australia, and Japan. However, Canada is new to this club of countries.

Canada has, nevertheless, consistently voiced support for the Philippines against China’s coercive tactics in the West Philippine Sea and demanded Beijing to abide by the 2016 arbitral verdict that deemed Beijing’s claim to nearly the whole South China Sea to be unfounded. It is not entirely alien to the group of countries that remain defiant to China’s regional designs.

In the aftermath of the latest incident, Ottawa¬†released a statement¬†that read: ‚ÄúCanada condemns the dangerous and destabilizing actions taken by the People‚Äôs Republic of China (PRC) against Philippine vessels on June 17, 2024, near Second Thomas Shoal. The PRC‚Äôs use of water cannons, dangerous maneuvers, and ramming of Philippine vessels is inconsistent with the PRC‚Äôs obligations under international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS].‚ÄĚ

Canada also signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation with the Philippines earlier this year. Some reports noted that the MoU could eventually lead to a visiting forces agreement.

China, on its part, has expectedly expressed its displeasure with Canada‚Äôs support for the Philippines. In December 2023, China condemned Canada’s support for the Philippines over what it said were violations of China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.

The Chinese embassy in Canada said: ‚ÄúThe South China Sea is the common home of countries in the region and should not become a hunting ground for Canada, the United States and other countries to pursue their geopolitical interests.‚ÄĚ

Against that backdrop, Canada’s participation in a regional patrol against what is believed to be China’s assertiveness in the region could lead to more tensions between the two sides. Canada has raised the stakes at a time when ties have already hit the nadir.

No Thaw In Ties Between China & Canada

A spate of incidents over the last few years has led to a downward spiral in Canada-China ties.

In 2018, China detained Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadian citizens, in what was widely perceived as reprisal for Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive of the Chinese telecom behemoth Huawei, at the Trump administration’s request. The two men from Canada were detained for over three years.

In June 2022, Canada said that Chinese fighter pilots had been conducting dangerous interceptions on a Royal Canadian Air Force CP-140 maritime patrol aircraft since December of 2021, as previously reported by EurAsian Times.

Chinese fighter jets had intercepted the Canadian aircraft flying as part of a UN mission about 60 times. Almost 20 interceptions were labeled as ‚Äėdangerous‚Äô as the Chinese jets flew within 20 to 100 feet of the Canadian aircraft. This incident triggered a diplomatic dispute between the two sides.

Since the incident, China has consistently criticized Canada for routinely participating in overflights and freedom of navigation operations with its ally, the United States.

The ties deteriorated further in 2023 as Canada accused China of meddling in its elections, causing a domestic political storm in Ottawa. Tensions came to a head in May 2023 when both sides expelled each other’s diplomats in a blatant show of mutual condemnation in years.

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File Image: Justin Trudeau and Xi Jinping

Speaking to an official investigating the matter earlier this year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that China attempted to influence the results in the 2019 and 2021 polls, but it was unsuccessful. Both elections saw his Liberal Party emerge victorious.

Canada has also cracked down on Chinese research institutions in the country. In January 2024, the Canadian government published a list of 85 Chinese research institutions that ‚Äúmay pose‚ÄĚ a threat to sensitive research and national security.

The list was published just days after the two sides¬†affirmed¬†that they wished to maintain consistent communication to support what Beijing referred to as the ‚Äúcurrent difficult situation‚ÄĚ in their bilateral relations.

China blames Canada‚Äôs perception for the strain in ties. In a conversation with Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, ‚ÄúThe fundamental reason why China-Canada relations have fallen to a low point in recent years is that there has been a serious deviation in Canada‚Äôs perception of China.‚ÄĚ

Amid rising tensions, Canada indicated in April 2024 that it was contemplating joining the AUKUS (a trilateral security partnership for the Indo-Pacific region between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) amid reports that the US, Britain, and Australia plan to add new members to their security pact. China fiercely criticizes the AUKUS arrangement.

In what appeared to be a reference to China‚Äôs challenge to the alliance, Trudeau stated that it was ‚Äúreally important that allies, particularly across the Indo-Pacific, work together in stronger and tighter ways.‚ÄĚ

Canada is also cracking down on Chinese investment in the country. On June 18, a senior government source stated that Canada has, for the first time, barred the sale of accumulated rare earth elements mined in its far north to a Chinese company that dominates the sector.

Against the results of this backdrop, Canada’s participation in a mission that seeks to challenge Beijing’s authority in its backyard may be fuel to a raging fire.