A Canadian warship has been buzzed by Chinese fighter jets monitoring out its movements in the East China Sea off Shanghai, the Canadian Global Affairs Institute reports citing one of its fellows, Matthew Fisher.
HMCS Regina, a Halifax-class frigate, and support ship Asterix, were sailing from Vietnam through the disputed waters of the South China Sea, the Strait of Taiwan and the East China Sea.
“The formidable twin-tail Russian-built strike aircraft flew within 300 metres of the Canadian ship’s bow, screaming past about 300 metres above the water,” Fisher said.
He added that Chinese fighters and Canadian warships have never been that close to each other. Regina's captain, meanwhile, was quoted as saying that it wasn't a "dangerous scenario" but was still worth being paid close attention.
Both Canadian ships are in the region as part of Operation Neon, an initiative led by a cluster of Western nations, including the US, the UK, France and France, to enforce trade sanctions against Pyongyang.
In the days leading up to the incident, those aboard Regina had observed a dozen other Su-30 fighters flying several kilometres away from the vessel.
Fisher claimed the Canadians tracked China-flagged tankers origins that could be transporting fuel to North Korea in violation of UN sanctions that ban ship-to-ship transfers of fuel and other commodities. Beijing has not commented on the allegations so far.
According to Fisher, someone aboard those tankers beamed green lasers at the pilots of Regina’s surveillance helicopter that flew some 80 kilometres off the Chinese coast, though no injuries were sustained as a result.
This echoes claims by American servicemen stationed at a military base in Djibouti, who accused Chinese personnel at a nearby military outpost of beaming ground-based lasers at American pilots. Beijing in response called the accusations groundless.
Canada has been taking part in so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations, along with the United States and its allies, which are aimed at defying Beijing’s extensive claims to the South China Sea.
These countries sail their warships past the Taiwan Strait, which separates mainland China and Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its territory but doesn’t control.
What Was the Reaction in Ottawa and Beijing?
Regina has also sailed through the strait, but Ottawa said it did not mean to send a message to China this time. A spokesperson for Canada’s Defence Department said that the ships’ passage through the Taiwan Strait constituted “the most practical route” between Vietnam and Northeast Asia.
The Canadian military went on to downplay the encounter, saying it was neither provocative nor unexpected.
“The ship’s interactions with the PLA forces were professional and cordial during its transit from Vietnam and the time in the East China Sea executing Operation Neon,” the Canadian Armed Forces said on Thursday. “This particular fly past by the two PLA aircraft was not provocative, hazardous, or unexpected given the proximity of the Operation Neon operating area to China.”
The Chinese Defence Ministry said its aircraft were monitoring Canadian ships. "We were clear about the transit of Canadian vessels through the Taiwan Strait and monitored the vessels for the whole process," a ministry spokesman told a press briefing on Thursday.
A Trans-Pacific Spat
It comes against the backdrop of strained relations between Beijing and Ottawa, which deteriorated rapidly following the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive of China’s telecom giant Huawei and the daughter of its founder, Ren Zhengfei.
Wanzhou, 47, was arrested in Vancouver in December at the request of US prosecutors, who accuse her and Huawei of financial fraud that allegedly helped the company profit by evading Iran sanctions.
Wanzhou was later released on bail but forced to stay in Canada, and is currently fighting against extradition to the US, with the first hearing set for January 2020.
Meng Wanzhou’s arrest was met with fury in Beijing, which called it politically motivated and demanded the release of the executive. Shortly after she was arrested, Chinese authorities detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on suspicion of spying for a foreign organisation (an offence which can carry the death penalty).
China has also blocked some imports of Canadian agricultural product canola, saying that it had found “hazardous pests” in the shipments, and this week temporarily banned all meat imports from Canada over “counterfeit” veterinary certificates.
The leaders of the two countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Xi Jinping, had a face-to-face meeting in Japan’s Osaka at the G20 summit om Friday – their first contact since Wangzhou’s arrest.
Trudeau’s office has announced that the prime minister had “positive, constructive interactions” with Xi during the meet.