Canada’s diplomatic and strategic engagement in East Asia has been erratic over the past two decades. Successive governments have been incapable or unwilling to clearly articulate a regional strategy, remaining virtually silent on major geopolitical tensions.
Some observers have advocated regular deployments of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) to create a visible, routine presence in the region. One unexplored question is whether Canadian naval ships should participate in U.S. freedom of navigation (FON) patrols in the South China Sea.
U.S. FON patrols are meant to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation for all maritime vessels and aircraft, as outlined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. While FON naval patrols take place globally, they are particularly salient when placed in the context of the South China Sea disputes.
These disputes are the result of competing topographical and maritime claims in the South China Sea from Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Of these, China has by far the most expansive claims, asserting historically-derived ownership over all islands and reefs and upwards of 90 per cent of the surrounding waters. In addition, China has undertaken the most intensive land reclamation activities, creating manmade islands complete with runways, ports and military infrastructure.
Notably, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled decisively against Beijing’s expansive claims and has called on Beijing to halt its reclamation activities — a ruling that China has ignored.