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China’s military ambitions could pressure Canada to increase naval deployments in Asia-Pacific, expert says

By Jolson Lim      

Canada recently deployed two ships to Asia-Pacific waters to join allied American and Asian navies in a deterrence mission. More naval missions may occur as China asserts its claims on the South China Sea.

The MV Asterix, centre, sails in formation en route to Vietnam through the South China Sea alongside the HMCS Calgary, far left, and Australian and American vessels on Sept. 19 during Operation Projection. Photograph courtesy of Armed Forces Combat Camera, taken by Leading Seaman Mike Goluboff
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China’s increasing geopolitical ambitions in Asia-Pacific waters will put pressure on Canada to deploy ships alongside its American and Asian allies in order to counter the rising superpower’s expanding influence in the region, one expert predicts.

If the United States wants to focus on containing the influence of China in the heavily-militarized and disputed South China Sea, Canadian ships will likely be called on to spend more time in such waters, according to Robert Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary. 

“The more that the Chinese know that there are, in fact, allies and friends that are willing to work together—that is the major form of deterrence today,” he said.

The U.S. has urged allies such as the United Kingdom and France to increase their military presence in the South China Sea in alignment with its own efforts to contain Chinese influence. Despite ambiguity on Asia policy from the White House, the U.S. maintains a strong military presence in the Pacific with its Seventh Fleet based in Japan.

Canada recently deployed two ships, the frigate HMCS Calgary and support ship MV Asterix, to the Indo-Pacific region to join American, Japanese, South Korean, and Australian vessels in naval drills as part of Operation Projection.

China’s military, meanwhile, is modernizing at an explosive pace. An American intelligence report released to reporters on Jan. 15 concluded that China is becoming more confident in its ability to wage a regional war as its military becomes more advanced.

At the same time China’s military is developing, Canada has crafted plans to procure 15 new frigates and two support ships—vessels that could spend time in Asia-Pacific waters.

New ships must meet new challenges

Prof. Huebert said the new ships being ordered by the federal government need to be useable in a high-tech conflict and against the most advanced navies in the world, with China and Russia being the likely enemies in a potential war.

“Thinking in terms of operations against a future Chinese conflict has to be forefront of anyone’s mind as they’re planning how to develop these,” he said.

“In effect, we need to have vessels that can fight with the best under the worst conditions,” he added. “That means fighting with the Americans in an environment that is high tech and very dangerous.”

MV Asterix experiences rough seas while conducting a refuel operation with HMCS Calgary during Operation Projection on Dec. 5. Photograph courtesy of the Armed Forces Combat Camera, taken by Leading Seaman Mike Goluboff

In October, the federal government selected British BAE Systems’ Type 26 frigate as its “preferred design” for the procurement of the Canadian Surface Combatant project, worth $62-billion. Ottawa said it would enter into negotiations with the winning bidder to confirm the ships could be delivered.

The Type 26 is a modern ship and versions are currently being built for the British and Australian navies, although there are concerns it will become outdated soon given the fast-changing nature of warfare.

The model has a less capable air missile defence system system and a slower maximum speed than other ships. The Department of National Defence also acknowledged that the Type 26 has a flawed propulsion system. The design was proposed by several defence contractors led by Lockheed Martin Canada. The first ships are expected to be built in the 2020s.

Canada also has plans to procure two support ships out of the Seaspan Yard in Vancouver but the first vessel’s completion has been delayed until 2023. The MV Asterisk, a cargo ship refitted by Davie Shipbuilding that is now at the heart of the Mark Norman controversy, is the only supply vessel in use.

Prof. Huebert said China is closing in on the number of ships that the Americans have but still lack the range and capacity of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike force.

“But they’re determined to catch up to the Americans,” he said. “They have a shipbuilding policy strategy and actual endeavour to probably catch up and then quite possibly exceed American naval capabilities.”

Is Canada truly committed?

Canada long has had obstacles of its own creation that has limited its naval activity in the Asia-Pacific, Prof. Huebert said.

Given the Canadian navy’s limited capacity, it is bound by the “tyranny of distance.” He said without supply ships—as was the case from 2016 to 2017—sending frigates to the Asia-Pacific region is only possible with the support of allies. Canada decommissioned its last of two supply ships in 2016 and the Asterix only arrived in 2017. He said Canada’s foreign policy attention has long been away from Asia but rather focused on the U.S. and Europe as well.

But ultimately, Canada lacks a “core strategic vision” for naval participation in the Asia-Pacific, Prof. Huebert said. While there have been occasional naval commitments in the region before, Canada has struggled to craft a clear and consistent maritime strategy.

He said as China’s power rivals that of the U.S. and its allies including Canada, and shows its interests are not aligned with theirs, Canada will have to carefully think about its security role in the Pacific.

“Quite frankly, probably the best participation that we can have is to determine what Canadian interests are, first and foremost,” he said.

Crew members from HMSC Calgary wave farewell to the Japanese Ship Kirisam during Operation Projection in the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 29. Photograph courtesy of the Armed Forces Combat Camera, taken by Leading Seaman Mike Goluboff

Prof. Huebert also said Asian allies approach security issues based on long-term relationships and don’t rely on Western countries if they can’t clearly commit to support. However, when Canada does deploy naval vessels, Asian allies such as Japan are always encouraged by the participation.

U.S. inconsistence

The U.S., on top of maintaining a military advantage worldwide and supporting allies in Asia, conducts “freedom-of-navigation” operations to flex its naval muscle towards China by sailing warships in disputed waters. In its recent deployment, the HMCS Calgary travelled through the South China Sea, where it was shadowed by Chinese vessels.

The South China Sea is a resource-rich region and vital shipping route that China claims historic territorial ties to. Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines also have territorial claims and have benefitted from American support to help deter potential Chinese aggression.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. Trump has overturned decades of international norms, including in Asia. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Taiwan—an island nation which China claims as its own—is located in the South China Sea. Taiwan has close military relations with the U.S., but China has increased its threats of a takeover under President Xi Jinping. The Americans have considered sailing an aircraft carrier through the Strait of Taiwan.

As China’s regional influence grows, the Trump administration has isolated Asian allies by pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership that many experts saw as a way to contain Chinese economic influence and court badly-needed friends. President Donald Trump has also accused allied Asian countries of not contributing their fair share of the combined military muscle in the region, and relying on American taxpayers for protection.

Canada has a Pacific fleet based in Victoria, B.C. called Maritime Forces Pacific, which currently consists of 14 vessels: five frigates, three submarines, and six coastal defence ships.

Prof. Huebert said pressure on Canada to build more naval ships will also grow as China, which calls itself a “near-Arctic” state, shows increasing interest in extending its reach into Arctic waters.


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