Best and worst case scenarios for Canada at the G20 Summit
OSAKA, Japan -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has arrived in Osaka, Japan for the G20 leaders' summit, with a contact between Chinese fighter jets and Canadian ships in the Taiwan Strait adding a new tension between the two countries.
Trudeau is hoping for progress, or at least fresh support from other countries, in Canada's disputes with China over agriculture products and China's arrests of two Canadians in apparent retaliation for Canada's detention of a Chinese high-tech executive on an extradition warrant from the United States.
The prime minister has no meeting with China's President Xi Jinping at the summit to do this, but U.S. President Donald Trump committed to raising the detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor during his own meeting with the prime minister in the Oval Office last Thursday.
Trudeau will also lean on like-minded allies that have already spoken out about the detentions, including France, the U.K., Germany and Spain.
On Friday, he will meet with European partners to discuss a range of issues such as climate change, though the diplomatic issue with China is expected to be raised.
The incident at sea was reported by former journalist Matthew Fisher, now with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute think-tank, who was aboard HMCS Regina on June 18 when two Chinese jets flew within 300 metres of the frigate.
Canada's Defence Department says the Regina and the navy's interim resupply ship, MV Asterix, were travelling in international waters from Vietnam to the coast of North Korea to help the UN prevent North Korean smuggling.
It says the decision to transit the strait between mainland China and Taiwan was not intended to send a political message, but simply represented the most practical route for the vessels.
"The most practical route between Cam Ranh Bay (in Vietnam) and Northeast Asia involves sailing through the Taiwan Strait," said Defence Department spokesman Jessica Lamirande.
"Transit through the Taiwan Strait is not related to making any statement."
Another Canadian warship, HMCS Calgary, made the same trip last October.
Yet China recently condemned France and the U.S. for similar passages through what it described as "Chinese waters," as it claims ownership over Taiwan and has been asserting its dominance over various coastal regions in the area.
According to Fisher's report, the "noisy fly-past" was the first such incident between a Canadian vessel and Chinese aircraft, though the Regina' captain, Cmdr. Jake French, was quoted as playing down any threat.
"This was not a dangerous scenario, but it is one that we certainly paid close attention to," French said.
"It is normal for air forces to check foreign navies operating in their backyard. Seeing the proximity of Chinese forces is part of the business. This is what militaries do."
Russian aircraft have previously been buzzed Canadian warships in similar fashion in the Black Sea, where tensions have been high since Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Lamirande did not respond to questions about the Chinese fighter jets, but Brian Job of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia said the department's description what happened during the transit has changed several times.
"First, DND simply reports passage through the Taiwan Strait, then it reports being monitored by Chinese vessels ... but without anything untoward," he said.
"Then today, the report on being buzzed by Chinese (military) planes -- again with a reassurance by the military that this is not a concern."
Adam MacDonald, deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University, predicts such incidents between Canadian and Chinese military forces will become more common.
That's because Canada has been steadily increasing its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region as its economic and strategic importance has grown even as China has been asserting more control over the neighbourhood.
"For a number of decades, we've had an erratic period of engagement militarily with East Asia â€¦ and now what we're seeing over the past five years is a real commitment to establish a pseudo, semi-permanent presence in East Asia," MacDonald said.
"So this is going to become the new normal in operating throughout East Asia."
And while the government insists it was not trying to send a message to China, MacDonald said the decision to travel through the strait nonetheless sends a "passive" statement that the water is not owned by the Chinese.
"Even in operating in these water spaces," he said, "we are showing a resolve that we see them as international waters and that is in some ways a passive balancing against China if they ever expand their claims."
At the same time, Job said diverting the vessels around Taiwan would have also sent a signal -- and possibly opened the federal Liberal government up to attacks from the opposition.
Still, the incident represents yet another wrinkle in the already tense relationship between Canada and China, which will be front and centre in Osaka over the next few days.
Prior to the G20 meeting, experts including Canada's former ambassador to China David Mulroney said Canada could use the forum provided at the summit to speak to other leaders who face similar challenges with China.
"It is in America's interest and it is in the interest of a lot of other countries to see China pull back from hostage diplomacy and bullying," Mulroney said in an interview.
The arrests of Kovrig and Spavor are widely viewed as a response to the December arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
Meng remains under house arrest, where she resists extradition to the U.S. to face allegations of fraud in violating Iran sanctions.
Days after Meng's arrest on Dec. 1, China responded by detaining the two Canadians and resentenced another to death after he had already been sentenced for a drug conviction - moves perceived as attempts to apply pressure for her release.
Meng's arrest also sparked a diplomatic chain of events that have resulted in strained relations between China and Canada.
The Chinese have refused to talk to senior Canadian government officials, including Trudeau and Freeland.
Before its actions on meat, China stopped importing other Canadian products including canola, of which is has been a major buyer.