Canada’s Defence Minister is accusing Beijing of unprofessional and unsafe conduct after a Chinese warplane fired flares in front of a Canadian helicopter flying over international waters in the South China Sea.
Canadian frigate HMCS Ottawa was sailing near the Paracel Islands on Sunday as part of what Bill Blair said are exercises intended in part to promote “freedom of navigation” in international waterways.
A Canadian military CH-148 helicopter was flying nearby, also on exercise, when a J-11 fighter jet from the People’s Liberation Army appeared and fired flares directly in front of it.
The Canadian pilot “had to manoeuvre to avoid the flares and reduce the risk of ingesting a flare into the helicopter’s rotor and intakes,” Mr. Blair told reporters Friday.
It was one of two incidents that day where Chinese fighter planes flew dangerously close to intercept the Canadian helicopters.
In an earlier encounter, a J-11 fighter conducted a pass over the CH-148 Cyclone very near the aircraft, leaving what Mr. Blair described as “little separation” between the machines.
The aggressive manoeuvre left the Canadian pilot struggling with “significant turbulence,” he said.
These encounters are only the latest in a string of such incidents this year in international waters and airspace by the People’s Liberation Army, the military arm of Beijing’s ruling Chinese Communist Party. It has drawn criticism from not only Canada but the United States, European Union, Japan and the Philippines.
After a Chinese warship came within 137 metres of a U.S. destroyer in June, the White House accused China of “growing aggressiveness.” Beijing has said that foreign military activity is “deliberately provoking risk.”
Mr. Blair said China had no justification for its behaviour in the incidents Sunday.
“All of these interactions took place in an international airspace well outside of any claimed territorial seas and associated airspace.”
He said Canada will not be deterred from conducting exercises on the open sea.
“As outlined in our Indo-Pacific strategy, we’re going to continue to step up our forces in that region,” he said.
“We are a Pacific nation and Canada will continue to stand up for the international rules-based order to maintain the safety of international navigation.”
He said Canada has registered protests with China.
Canadian military pilots are trained to handle being the subject of fighter interceptions, Mr. Blair said.
“But our expectation is that they will take place in a way which is both professional and safe. And unfortunately, what we’ve seen in the most recent incidents, on two occasions, the actions of People’s Republic of China fighter jets were deemed to be significantly unsafe.”
Canada pledged to increase its patrols of the Indo-Pacific region in a new foreign policy strategy released last year. This includes one more frigate deployment to the region.
HMCS Ottawa and Vancouver, both Halifax-class frigates, departed from Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, Canada’s Pacific coast naval base, in August. HMCS Montreal was deployed to the region in March and has since returned.
The term Indo-Pacific reflects the way many Western countries have reframed their engagement with the Asia-Pacific region. These governments are now working to build common cause between India and neighbouring countries that have burgeoning middle-class populations and a shared interest in addressing China’s growing influence in the region.
The Canadian frigates are expected to sail through the Taiwan Strait – the body of water that separates China from the self-governed island of Taiwan – “whenever it makes sense to do so,” according to Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee, Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy.
China claims Taiwan as its territory and also claims sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.
General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff, said in a statement that Canada’s expanded defence presence will demonstrate that this country “can be counted on to be an engaged and reliable partner in the Indo-Pacific now and in the years to come.”
Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, released by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly last fall, is a blueprint for diversifying and deepening trade in the region, which stretches from North America to the Indian Ocean.
The strategy calls out China as an “increasingly disruptive global power” – a reversal of the government’s previous policy of avoiding confrontation with the world’s second-largest economy.
With reports from Reuters