In less than a week since leaving the friendly port of Yokosuka, Japan, the Canadian warship HMCS Ottawa has had at least three interactions with suspected Chinese vessels, the most significant during an exercise in international waters with Japanese and American allies.
On Wednesday afternoon, the heavily armed Chinese destroyer, the Luyang, closely followed the convoy of ships in the East China Sea, calling out repeatedly to the Canadians on maritime radio, and coming within just over a kilometre of the allied ships.
So close, the commanding officer of HMCS Ottawa called for his intelligence-gathering team to capture imagery of the vessel, to share with allies.
“They’re as curious about our behaviour as we are of theirs,” said navy Cmdr. Samuel Patchell from the command bridge as he peered out at the destroyer.
Canada is among several nations increasing the frequency and number of ship deployments to the increasingly tense region. HMCS Ottawa is one of two Canadian frigates deployed for four months, along with MV Asterix, a supply vessel which refuels the frigates and other allied nations at sea to extend their operating ability.
CBC News has exclusive access with a team embedded on board HMCS Ottawa.
Wednesday’s encounter came just as China’s navy — now the world’s largest by number of ships — becomes increasingly assertive in the region, sometimes harassing military vessels transiting the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea. It claims portions of both as its own, while the majority of sea-going nations consider those areas to be international waters, where all vessels should have unhindered access.
In one major incident in June, a Chinese navy ship overtook a U.S. navy ship, then turned hard to cut it off, forcing the Americans to take evasive action in the disputed Taiwan Strait.
“China is trying to exert the same types of controls that countries do over national waterways,” said David Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a Calgary-based think-tank.
“And if they can’t do that, they harass others that are going through those areas and make it uncomfortable for people to exercise the right of free passage on the open ocean.”
Just a day before the at-sea encounter with the Luyang, the Canadians were passed by the Dongjian, a new vessel used by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the official name of China’s maritime force.
Its primary purpose is believed to be the detection of submarines at extremely long range, but it may also have electronic surveillance equipment intended to scoop signals from nearby vessels.
It’s not clear if the ship was passing by chance — or design. But hours earlier, in the darkness, a small vessel used laser lights on HMCS Ottawa.
“I actually got hit with the laser itself,” Sailor 1st Class William Monkhouse-Beck told CBC News on the ship. “It can obviously cause permanent eye damage. What were they doing? We don’t actually know. That’s the danger of it.”
Lasers can be used to detect range. And China has used what appears to be fishing vessels as part of its maritime surveillance program.
The small Chinese vessel also launched a drone toward HMCS Ottawa, but kept it at a distance.
The Canadian ship is equipped by multiple weapons systems designed to detect, track and shoot down drones.
Canada focuses navy on Indo-Pacific
When Canada announced the latest deployment of warships to the Indo-Pacific region last month, Defence Minister Bill Blair said in a statement that the region “is vital to global security, and its importance will only increase in the coming years.”
The deployment, he said, would help “to support a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific where international rules prevail.”
It was a not-so-subtle jab at China’s claims over waters in the region, particularly the Taiwan Strait, a body of water it would most likely use should it invade Taiwan.
China is contesting many areas, including Japanese islands and vast sections of water beyond China’s normal economic exclusion zone.
Chinese fighter jets have also flown at great speed toward HMCS Ottawa, before turning away more than 32 kilometres from the ship.
The culmination of the exercise this week involving the American, Japanese and Canadian ships was intended to be a photograph of the allied vessels taken from a helicopter.
But the Chinese ship remained so close to the group that it is featured in the image.
With the exercise ended, the U.S. ship hailed the Chinese vessel, warning over the radio that it intended to sharply turn in its direction.
The Chinese responded in English, the language used for international maritime communication, indicating they would give way.
But their mission was not over.
As the various ships departed for their next tasks, the Chinese slipped behind the Canadian ships. A constant shadow on the sea.
The history of these encounters suggests that the same vessel may well track the Canadians through much of their four-month deployment in the region.
And it isn’t the only one. Another PLA Navy ship, a Jiangkai frigate, has been, at times, following the Canadian ships just out of visual range.
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