Skip to main content

The Senate has passed a motion criticizing China for its aggressive and expansive behaviour in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, a major conduit for international trade.

The measure decries the “escalating and hostile behaviour exhibited by the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea” and urges all parties to the dispute to uphold the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight as enshrined in international law and the United Nations Convention of the Sea.

It’s rare for Canadian parliamentarians to criticize China so directly. The measure comes as the Trudeau government is seeking to open formal trade negotiation with the world’s second-biggest economy.

Both the Liberal government’s representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, as well as the government’s liaison, Grant Mitchell, voted in favour of the motion, which passed 43-29 with six abstentions.

Conservative Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, who sponsored the motion, said its passage sends a strong message to China that its behavior in the South China Sea is unacceptable.

“By passing this motion, the Senate is stating its concern on China’s escalating and hostile behaviour in the South China Sea, and urging the Government of Canada to take a principled position on one of the biggest geopolitical conflicts of our time,” he said.

Mr. Ngo, whose motion had been held up in the upper chamber for almost two years, said he did not expect it to be adopted because of what he characterized as intense opposition from Senator Yuen Pau Woo, the leader of the largest group of independent senators.

“He very, very much leans towards China, more than anybody else,” Mr. Ngo said.

Mr. Woo, a former president of the Asia-Pacific Foundation and a leader of the Independent Senate Group, opposed the motion for a number of reasons. While he supports a 2016 international court ruling that said China had no historical title over the South China Sea, he felt the Senate motion would not contribute to reducing tensions or help Canadian interests in the region

Mr. Woo also voiced concerns that the Senate was not sufficiently informed on evolving foreign policy matters to make pronouncement on these subjects.

He said the motion “says all of the things that in the abstract I would hope all Canadians support,” but foreign policy and international disputes have to be resolved through practical measures that reflect geopolitical realities.

“Simply making pious statements may appeal to a domestic constituency and may make us feel virtuous but, if they don’t actually improve a conflictual situation, one has to question the value of these actions,” he said.

Mr. Woo said he’s not endorsing China’s position and had earlier said it’s not accurate to characterize him as pro-Beijing. He said he’s merely explaining Beijing’s position. “China is a rising power and wants to ensure the waters surrounding China are within its control in the way that the Americans would be very nervous if the Chinese were sailing up and down the California coast,” he said.

The Chinese Embassy issued a statement deploring the vote and criticizing Mr. Ngo for trying to “cast shadows” over bilateral relations.

“Some people, knowing nothing or caring nothing about what really happened in the South China Sea, in the guise of respecting international laws and safeguarding the freedom of navigation and overflight, groundlessly blames China and tries to get Canada into the trap,” spokesperson Yang Yundong said. “This is irresponsible.”

Last week, the Australian Broadcasting Corp., citing unnamed defence officials, reported that the Chinese navy challenged two Australian frigates and a replenishment ship in the disputed waterway earlier this month.

The Senate motion calls for an end to building artificial islands and militarization of the region and asks all countries in the area to find a peaceful solution that respects settlements reached by international arbitration. In July, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China had no historical title over the South China Sea and that it had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights.

The Canadian government supports the 2016 international court ruling that found Beijing had no legal basis to its claims of historic rights.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China has, over the past decade, “effectively seized over 80 per cent of the South China Sea, an area about the size of Western Europe.”