What will US-Canada warships transit mean for peace in the Taiwan Strait?

South China Morning Post

Posted at Oct 19 2021 12:29 PM

US President Joe Biden’s coordinated approach with allies to counter China has seen America and Canada send warships through the Taiwan Strait for the first time, in a joint mission described by an analyst as a “breakthrough” for Washington.

The move by the US and Canadian navies has prompted concerns about a possible clash in the geopolitically sensitive waterway, with the Chinese military condemning the transit as “seriously jeopardising peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait”.

The operation could also dampen hopes of improved relations between China and Canada following the recent release of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou after nearly three years under house arrest.

Questioned on last week’s joint transit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Canada should pay greater attention to its own interests and relations with China, and not be an accomplice to others.

“This [operation] is not a commitment to freedom and openness, but a deliberate interference with and destruction of regional peace and stability, which is seen clearly by the international community,” Zhao told reporters on Monday.

The US regularly conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation patrols” in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

The US military said its Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Dewey along with the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg sailed through the narrow waterway separating the island of Taiwan from the Chinese mainland on Thursday and Friday.

Although this was the tenth such transit by US warships this year alone, it was the first coordinated military action between the US and an ally in the Taiwan Strait, over which Beijing dispatches warplanes on patrol and monitoring missions almost daily. Beijing regards self-ruled Taiwan as its territory and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.

On Sunday, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army condemned the US and Canada for sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, saying they were threatening peace and stability in the region.

“The United States and Canada colluded to provoke and stir up trouble … seriously jeopardising [the] peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait,” a spokesman for the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command said.

“Taiwan is part of Chinese territory. Theatre forces always maintain a high level of alert and resolutely counter all threats and provocations.”

This comes as Beijing has ramped up pressure against Taiwan since last year. It sent almost 150 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone over a four-day period beginning October 1, prompting the island’s military to scramble jets and deploy missiles to warn them off.

“Although the joint transit made by US and Canadian warships itself was limited in both power and scale, it reflected a significant shift in the US strategic approach in countering China,” said Liu Weidong, a veteran US affairs expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “It’s a breakthrough, meaning the US has succeeded in convincing more countries to go against China in this sensitive waterway.”

More significantly, last week’s action was in line with Biden’s diplomatic approach, which emphasises the importance of allies when dealing with shared threats, in stark contrast to that of his predecessor Donald Trump, Liu said.

“This coordinated approach against China is not only happening in the Taiwan Strait, it’s also very clear on South China Sea issues, as some non-regional countries have sent military vessels to demonstrate their will,” Liu pointed out.

“The Biden administration had made use of the stormy international situation, in which China is now in an inferior position to achieve its goals – and this has undermined Chinese influence,” he added.

Ding Yifan, former deputy director of the Institute of World Development at the State Council’s Development Research Centre, said the joint transit would “definitely” have a negative impact on China-Canada relations, though Beijing is not likely to take any concrete action against Ottawa.

“The US may continue to manage to pull [together] allies who are willing to engage in its Indo-Pacific strategy to stir up trouble together in the region, but such moves are essentially symbolic and do no substantial harm to China,” Ding said.

China-Canada ties are still rocky despite the release of Huawei’s Meng last month, followed by Beijing freeing two Canadian nationals – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. The “two Michaels” had been detained in China in December 2018, shortly after Meng’s arrest in Vancouver.

Days before Meng’s release, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was re-elected for a historic third term. His Liberal Party takes a more moderate stance towards China than the opposition Conservatives led by Erin O’Toole, who has vowed to “stand up” to China. 

“We must stand up to the Communist government of China,” said the election manifesto of the Conservatives, which promised to withdraw from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and ban Huawei from 5G networks.

Besides joint military activities with allies, the US has also enhanced participation in the Quad, a four-nation Asia-Pacific security alliance with India, Japan and Australia, and recently announced the trilateral Aukus security pact with Britain and Australia, which will help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines with US technology.

Britain, a key US ally, also sent a warship through the strait last month. The Chinese military slammed the Royal Navy transit as a “publicity” stunt.

Another international affairs expert who declined to be named was concerned the situation in the Taiwan Strait would deteriorate further.

“The military presence of the United States and its allies in the Taiwan Strait will undoubtedly intensify the political and security relations between China and these countries, leading to a higher likelihood of collisions and conflicts in the strait,” the expert said. “And China will definitely respond more strongly. Beijing is expected to exert more pressure on the island by such means as sending more military planes and vessels.”

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