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Canada Sends Warships Through Sensitive Taiwan Strait

By Ralph Jennings September 13, 2019

The Canadian navy has, in the last three months, passed two warships through the Taiwan Strait, a move analysts say is probably an expression of Canadian support for Washington and opposition to China.

U.S. naval ships have transited the strait, a potential military flashpoint between Taipei and Beijing, 10 times since mid-2018, showing support for Taiwan and sending warnings to China against threatening its Asian neighbor.

Tuesday, the frigate HMCS Ottawa sailed through the 160-kilometer-wide strait because it was the most direct way to go from monitoring U.N. Security Council sanctions in Northeast Asia to obligations in Southeast Asia, the Canadian Department of National Defence told VOA. HMCS Regina, also a frigate, passed through the same waterway in June.

"I think that the government wanted to make a statement or send in a kind of political message that Ottawa has its own interests and should be respected," said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Support for the West

Canada's ship movement near Taiwan puts in a league with other Western-aligned countries that have sent vessels to the strait or to the adjacent South China Sea in the past two years.

The presence of powerful outside forces helps governments, including Taiwan's, vying with China for sovereignty but lacking the military strength of the People's Liberation Army.
Australia, Britain, France and Japan have all sailed into the South China Sea, supplementing U.S. Navy "freedom of navigation operations."

Beijing claims 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer, resource-laden South China Sea its own, but five other Asian governments dispute those claims. Western countries want the sea to stay open internationally. Officials in Beijing fear the West wants to suppress Chinese maritime expansion.

"Canada is working in cooperation with the Americans," said Shane Lee, professor emeritus at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. "It's part of a series of things that [the United States] wants to do including those partners, so Canada, Australia and all the rest will have sent ships or in the future maybe airplanes to go through the Taiwan Strait."

Sino-Canadian relations

Sino-Canadian relations worsened in December when Canadian police arrested the chief financial officer of China's Huawei Technologies, at U.S. request. The officer, Meng Wanzhou, is wanted in the United States on suspicion of violating Iran sanctions.

The same month, Chinese authorities detained two Canadians, businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, and later arrested them on charges of harming national security.

"Perhaps Ottawa's just fed up with Beijing over the latter's detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and feels like it has to do something, send some kind of signal," said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.
Canada's ruling Liberals had historically "been very accommodating towards Beijing," King said.

The Canadian navy does not conduct "so-called Freedom of Navigation operations" aimed at challenging the territorial claims of other nations, the nation's defense department said in its statement. The HMCS Ottawa, it added, sailed through the strait as permitted under international law.

Chinese reaction

China might respond to the Canadian ship movements by sending its own vessels or military aircraft toward Taiwan as a threat, Lee said. Chinese and Taiwanese military forces normally observe a median line in the strait to avoid mishaps.

Beijing has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and threatened to take it by force, if needed. About 8 in 10 Taiwanese oppose unification with China, the Taiwan government's Mainland Affairs Council found in a survey in March.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday asked why the HMCS Ottawa announced its latest passage through the strait.

"Foreign ships passing through the Taiwan Strait are not unusual, but what is the meaning of Canada's high-profile announcement?" ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying asked at a Wednesday news briefing in Beijing. "We hope the Canadian side will use actual measures to show respect for the Chinese side's sovereignty and security."

Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense monitored both recent passages by Canadian ships to ensure safety in the strait, a ministry spokesperson said Thursday without further comment.

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