In the strongest show of force seen on the trip so far, Canadian, Japanese, Australian and American ships have all sailed together toward new missions in the East China Sea.
The MV Asterix, a Canadian navy refuelling ship, led the formation as helicopters buzzed over top, photographing the mission. As Lt.-Cmdr. Scott Richard Colbourne, executive officer of HMCS Montreal described it, the show demonstrated “our interoperability, our capabilities together and the fact we’re willing together as one group.”
Meanwhile, photobombing in the background were three Chinese warships.
Colbourne says their presence was “not an impediment” to what the allied ships were doing.
But two days ago in the Taiwan Strait, their impact was significant.
A Chinese warship came within 150 yards of hitting American destroyer USS Chung-Hoon on Saturday during a rare joint Canada-U.S. mission sailing through the Taiwan Strait, the latest aggressive military move from Beijing in the South China Sea.
Global News has been travelling on HMCS Montreal since May 25 in the South China Sea and witnessed the near collision from the bridge wing of the ship.
A People’s Liberation Navy ship picked up considerable speed and cut in front of the bow of the Chung-Hoon, a manoeuvre HMCS Montreal’s commander, Capt. Paul Mountford, called “not professional.”
When the Chinese vessel altered its course, Mountford says the crew called the American ship and told it to move or there would be a collision. The Americans responded by asking the Chinese to stay clear of the ship, but the Chung-Hoon ultimately needed to alter course and slow down to avoid a crash.
The U.S. navy on Sunday night released new footage of that close encounter with the Chinese warship — one that retired vice-admiral Mark Norman, a 39-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Navy and former commander of the fleet, called “clearly provocative.”
“This was not an accident,” he said in an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson.
The Chinese ship is part of the world’s largest navy, estimated to have 340 warships. That recently surpassed the U.S. and dwarfs the 30 ships the Canadian Navy has.
The Chinese naval build-up and other military drills have the West concerned about a potential invasion of Taiwan, just across the very waters HMCS Montreal sailed.
Beijing views the democratically governed island as a breakaway territory and despite the Chinese Communist Party never controlling Taiwan, the Pentagon believes Chinese President Xi Jinping could order an attack as soon as 2027.
Would Canada help defend Taiwan?
U.S. President Joe Biden has said on four occasions the Americans would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. Defence Minister Anita Anand was less clear in an interview with Global News when asked directly whether Canada would defend Taiwan if China invades.
“Canada respects the one-China policy. At the same time, we have a very large Taiwanese diaspora in Canada and we have strong trade ties with Taiwan, and those are two areas that we will continue to augment, to work on, because they are so important to our country,” she said.
“We are concerned, however, by China’s military activity in the vicinity of Taiwan, and we urge China to resolve differences through peaceful means.”
In a followup question, Anand was asked whether Canada would support U.S. military action to defend Taiwan.
“Well, as I mentioned, we do adhere to the one-China policy, and our policy vis-a-vis China is set out in the Indo-Pacific strategy, where we will challenge China where we must and co-operate where we need to. We want to avoid conflict,” she said.
“We want to promote peace and stability and the rules-based international order. And that’s what we will continue to do through tangible contributions.”
She added: “The secretary of defense of the United States was very clear about this, too. We need to avoid conflict.”
Lloyd Austin had warned in a speech to the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore that a war over Taiwan would be “devastating.”
“Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable,” Austin said on Saturday. “Deterrence is strong today – and it’s our job to keep it that way. The whole world has a stake in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
The Montreal is scheduled to head to port in Okinawa, Japan shortly, which is where the Global News team will get off the ship and head home. But most of the sailors won’t be able to say the same thing until October, when the ship arrives back in Halifax.