Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has arrived in Osaka, Japan, for the G20 leaders’ summit, with a contact between Chinese fighter jets and Canadian ships in the East China Sea adding a new tension between the two countries.
Mr. Trudeau is hoping for progress, or at least fresh support from other countries, in Canada’s disputes with China over agriculture products and China’s arrests of two Canadians in apparent retaliation for Canada’s detention of a Chinese high-tech executive on an extradition warrant from the United States.
The Prime Minister has no meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping at the summit to do this, but U.S. President Donald Trump committed to raising the detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor during his own meeting with the Prime Minister in the Oval Office last Thursday.
Mr. Trudeau will also lean on like-minded allies that have already spoken out about the detentions, including France, Britain, Germany and Spain.
On Friday, he will meet with European partners to discuss a range of issues such as climate change, though the diplomatic issue with China is expected to be raised.
The incident at sea was reported by former journalist Matthew Fisher, now with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute think tank, who was aboard HMCS Regina on June 24 when two Chinese jets flew within 300 metres of the frigate.
The Regina and the navy’s interim resupply ship MV Asterix were in the area after travelling in international waters from Vietnam to the coast of North Korea to help the United Nations prevent North Korean smuggling. That included a transit through the strait between mainland China and Taiwan.
The Defence Department confirmed the flypast in an e-mailed statement on Thursday, adding that the incident “was not provocative, hazardous, or unexpected given the proximity of the Operation Neon operating area to China.”
Operation Neon is the name of the military’s efforts to crack down on North Korean smuggling in the East China Sea.
Chinese naval vessels also shadowed the Canadian ships, the department said, and a laser was pointed at a Canadian helicopter.
“This originated from a fishing vessel,” the department said of the laser. “No one was injured during this incident nor was there damage to the aircraft.”
According to Mr. Fisher’s report, the “noisy fly-past” was the first such incident between a Canadian vessel and Chinese aircraft, though the Regina’s captain, Commander Jake French, was quoted as playing down any threat.
Russian aircraft have previously buzzed Canadian warships in similar fashion in the Black Sea, where tensions have been high since Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Brian Job of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia said the department’s description of what happened during the transit has changed several times.
“First, DND simply reports passage through the Taiwan Strait, then it reports being monitored by Chinese vessels ... but without anything untoward,” he said.
“Then today, the report on being buzzed by Chinese [military] planes – again with a reassurance by the military that this is not a concern.”
Adam MacDonald, deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University, predicts such incidents between Canadian and Chinese military forces will become more common.
That’s because Canada has been steadily increasing its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region as its economic and strategic importance has grown even as China has been asserting more control over the neighbourhood.
“For a number of decades, we’ve had an erratic period of engagement militarily with East Asia and now what we’re seeing over the past five years is a real commitment to establish a pseudo, semi-permanent presence in East Asia,” Mr. MacDonald said.
“So this is going to become the new normal in operating throughout East Asia.”
Still, the incident represents yet another wrinkle in the already tense relationship between Canada and China, which will be front and centre in Osaka over the next few days.
Prior to the Group of 20 meeting, experts including Canada’s former ambassador to China David Mulroney said Canada could use the forum provided at the summit to speak to other leaders who face similar challenges with China.
“It is in America’s interest and it is in the interest of a lot of other countries to see China pull back from hostage diplomacy and bullying,” Mr. Mulroney said in an interview.
The arrests of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are widely viewed as a response to the December arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
Ms. Meng remains under house arrest, where she resists extradition to the U.S. to face allegations of fraud in violating Iran sanctions.
Days after Ms. Meng’s arrest on Dec. 1, China responded by detaining the two Canadians and resentenced another to death after he had already been sentenced for a drug conviction – moves perceived as attempts to apply pressure for her release.
The Chinese have refused to talk to senior Canadian government officials, including Mr. Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
China said this week it doesn’t trust Canada’s assurances about the quality of meat it exports. And before that, China stopped importing other Canadian products including canola, of which it has been a major buyer.
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