Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a news conference in Ottawa on June 6, 2022.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

China’s foreign ministry is warning Canada that provoking Beijing could bring “grave consequences” after the Canadian military last week accused Chinese warplanes of harassing its aircraft, which are monitoring North Korea’s compliance with United Nations sanctions.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggested during a media briefing in Beijing on Monday that these patrols by Canadian and allied aircraft are illegal. “The UN Security Council has never authorized any country to carry out military surveillance in the seas and airspace of other countries in the name of enforcing sanctions,” he told reporters.

“China urges Canada to see the severity of the incident and refrain from taking any adventurist or provocative moves. Otherwise all the grave consequences will be borne by the Canadian side.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in response, defended the patrols, which he said are part of a multinational effort to enforce UN sanctions. He warned Beijing that pilots on both sides are in danger of behind hurt or killed by China’s behaviour.

“China’s actions are irresponsible and provocative in this case, and we will continue to register strongly that they are putting people at risk while at the same time not respecting decisions by the UN to enforce UN sanctions on North Korea,” he told reporters during a press conference in Ottawa with Chile’s President on Monday.

Chinese fighter pilots have recently stepped up aggressive behaviour against Canadian military aircraft flying in international airspace near North Korea.

It’s time for NATO to stop being ‘the West,’ and add an East Asian member

Since 2019, Canada has from time to time dispatched a naval frigate or long-range patrol aircraft to help monitor ocean approaches to North Korea as part of a multinational approach, with the United States and other allies, to enforce sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program. The area under patrol includes the contested East China Sea, above which China established an aircraft defence identification zone in 2013.

An aircraft defence identification zone, according to the Canadian government, is a demarcated area where a state monitors and identifies aircraft approaching its sovereign airspace and assesses possible threats to national security.

Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations for Canada’s Department of National Defence, has said on several occasions recently that Chinese fighter jets have forced Canadian planes to divert their courses “to avoid a potential collision.”

In a statement last Wednesday, the Canadian Armed Forces said that there had been several such incidents from April 26 to May 26.

China disputes Canada’s characterization of events, saying it’s Canada that is the aggressor.

“Canadian military aircraft have recently increased close-in reconnaissance and made provocations to the Chinese side in the name of implementing UN Security Council resolutions,” the Chinese government’s Mr. Zhao told journalists in Beijing. “In response to the Canadian side’s provocative acts and unfriendly and unprofessional manoeuvres, the Chinese military promptly took legitimate and forceful measures in response that are safe and professional.”

Mr. Trudeau was unapologetic Monday. He said Canada’s aircraft patrols are justified and professional.

“Canada is participating in a UN mission designed to interdict and intercept and ensure the respect of sanctions on North Korea’s murderous regime,” the Prime Minister said. “Canada continues to stand up for the rule of law. We continue to stand up for multilateralism. We continue to stand up for the principles of the UN Charter.”

Relations between Canada and China remain in what former Canadian ambassador David Mulroney recently described as a “deep freeze,” after Beijing jailed two Canadians for more than 1,000 days in an apparent act of retaliation. China was upset over Canada’s arrest, in response to a U.S. extradition request, of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese technology company Huawei.

Last month, Canada announced it was barring Huawei gear from this country’s 5G wireless networks. China’s ambassador to Canada has been absent from his post for four months, and Canada has been without an envoy to China for about six months.

Separately, Australia this past weekend revealed that its military aircraft are also being targeted for harassment by Chinese warplanes.

Australia’s defence department said in a statement that a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft intercepted an Australian P-8 surveillance aircraft on May 26. The statement added that the plane was on a “routine maritime surveillance” mission in international airspace above the South China Sea.

“The intercept resulted in a dangerous manoeuvre which posed a safety threat to the P-8 aircraft and its crew,” the Australian defence department said.

Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles later added during a news conference that the Chinese jet flew very close in front of the Royal Australian Air Force aircraft and released a “bundle of chaff” containing small pieces of aluminum that entered the Australian aircraft’s engine.

Steve Tsang, a professor of Chinese studies and director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, said the aggression against Canadian military surveillance aircraft should be viewed alongside the recent harassment of Australian aircraft.

“Two similar acts by two Chinese pilots in a short space of time can still be a coincidence, but it is more likely to reflect a decision by someone senior in the air force – or the air force generally – that it must now take a hard line to Western military surveillance aircraft flying too close to locations deemed by the Chinese authorities as sensitive,” Prof. Tsang said.

He added that China under President Xi Jinping is “seeking to bend international rules.” The lack of apparent disciplinary action taken against Chinese pilots by Beijing, and the strong defence from China’s foreign ministry, he said, suggests “this represents government policy.”

With a report from Reuters

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.