Close Encounters With China During Operation NEON

Chinese forces are keeping close watch on a Canadian frigate, but not on North Korea's high seas sanctions-busting

Image courtesy Canadian Armed Forces / CGAI

Published Jun 28, 2019 9:46 PM by CGAI

[By Matthew Fisher]

A pair of frontline Chinese Su-30 fighter jets buzzed HMCS Regina Monday in the East China Sea, in international waters east of Shanghai. The formidable twin-tail Russian-built strike aircraft flew within 300 meters of the Canadian ship’s bow, screaming past about 300 meters above the water.

It was the first such close encounter between a Chinese warplane and a Royal Canadian Navy warship. It comes at a time of heightened tensions between China and Canada, triggered by Canada’s plan to hold an extradition hearing to the U.S. for a senior Chinese businesswoman whom Washington accuses of violating sanctions on Iran.

The noisy fly-past came after the Canadians had spent days observing as many as a dozen other Su-30 fighter jets flying at least several kilometers away from the ship. While more aggressive than anything the RCN has seen before from Chinese fighter jets, those aboard HMCS Regina did not consider the Su-30s’ actions to be unduly provocative or hazardous.

“This was not a dangerous scenario but it is one that we certainly paid close attention to,” Regina’s captain, Cmdr. Jake French, said. “I will not characterize their intent, but we have seen a lot of ‘fast air’ over the past week flying from where many of their bases are.

“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.”

Relations at sea with the Chinese military have been “professional and cordial,” the commander said.

It has been a hugely eventful two weeks for the Victoria-based frigate. It travelled north more than 4,000 kilometers in international waters from Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam through the disputed waters of the South China Sea, Strait of Taiwan and East China Sea, constantly shadowed by a revolving cast of Chinese destroyers, frigates, corvettes and coast guard cutters.

Along the way, Regina discovered a half-submerged People’s Liberation Army Navy Kilo-class attack submarine. “We saw the Chinese periscope and mast. We got a close look at it,” French said of the Russian-built submarine, which was first spotted by Regina’s new Cyclone helicopter and later became clearly visible to anyone on the Canadian frigate’s deck or bridge. Other than to say it seemed the submarine was headed toward its home waters, he declined to speculate as to why the diesel-electric submarine, which normally goes to great lengths not to be detected, was so unusually easy to find.

Regina’s passage across the politically sensitive western Pacific has come at a time of sharp differences between Beijing and Ottawa. Last December, Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, and a B.C. court will decide whether to extradite her to the U.S. to face charges of having a subsidiary violate sanctions against Iran.

The Meng case has become a cause célèbre in China. In an apparent act of retaliation, Beijing jailed two Canadians, sentenced another to death for drug smuggling and banned millions of dollars in Canadian canola and pork imports as unsafe.

Whether because of the extradition drama, the resulting diplomatic machinations or happenstance, the crew of the Regina has had plenty to do.

The Canadian ship located and tracked tankers that may be involved in smuggling fuel to North Korea in violation of UN sanctions and someone aboard one of those vessels lasered Regina’s RCAF helicopter crew. 

The green laser beams are insidious weapons that can cause blindness and other serious eye damage. The lasers were aimed at the Canadians as their helicopter flew about 80 kilometers off the Chinese coast. Nobody was hurt during the attack.

“It is a safety issue and there has been an increase in incidents at sea lately,” Regina’s skipper said. “Our crew were wearing protective safety lenses just in case.”

The Royal Australian Navy and the United States Marine Corps recently accused China’s navy of lasering their pilots in the South China Sea, and in and near Djibouti, a former French enclave in the Horn of Africa. But there was no obvious link between those alleged attacks and the laser that was aimed at Canada’s surveillance helicopter.

Regina and several other Western ships have been sailing in the East China Sea and in the adjacent Yellow Sea as part of a multinational effort to deter and disrupt smugglers transferring fuel at sea that ends up in North Korea where it supports Kim Jong-Un’s rogue regime. The UN imposed the sanctions on such fuel transfers to try to dissuade Pyongyang from further developing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs.

As many as 23 tankers at a time could be seen from the bridge of Regina one evening as the motley flotilla lay at anchor or drifted about 80 kilometers west of Shanghai. The number of new tankers and rust buckets gathered together so far out at sea was breathtaking. The tankers’ presence in waters between China and the two Koreas has become a serious concern for countries such as Canada that seek to deny Kim weapons of mass destruction.

“This is the honey pot,” was how a young sailor on Regina described the brazen agglomeration of tankers bobbing all around his warship.

“I believe that Op NEON,” as the Canadians call the multinational UN operation “has been a great success,” French said. “We are now going through the reality of sorting out who was who in a cluster of radar and visual contacts. We have been particularly focused on what we were told were vessels of interest.”

Some of the illicit activity that the Canadians observed over the past week took place only hundreds of meters away from Regina. The Canadians saw makeshift hoses strung between tankers that were often so close to each other that makeshift wooden footbridges ran between them.

When the sailors on the tankers, many of them wearing shorts and flip-flops, realized that the grey vessel stealthily approaching them at slow speed was a warship, they often, but not always, disconnected in a panic. The abrupt breakoffs sometimes caused oil to spill out of the hoses, fouling swaths of the ocean before the fuel lines could be closed.

Judging by the Chinese characters clearly visible on their prows or sterns, and the Mandarin radio traffic, most of the tankers appeared to be from China. This would suggest Beijing may be turning a blind eye to the illegal trade, though it voted for the UN fuel sanctions against North Korea.

Supporting this contention, the Chinese destroyers and frigates that for weeks have been following Regina and Canada’s new replenishment ship, MV Asterix, appeared to have no interest in monitoring, let alone halting, the illegal fuel transfers.

Regina’s transit of the Strait of Taiwan with MV Asterix, the controversial Canadian replenishment ship, got a lot of attention in Canadian media and from specialized industry publications such as the Maritime Executive as well as in the Taiwan News and Wall Street Journal. Some of them suggested that Canada was trying to send a message to China.

Whether this voyage was designed to do this is a matter of perspective, but such transits are no longer exceptional. They have become routine since HMCS Winnipeg and HMCS Ottawa visited the region two years ago and HMCS Calgary returned here last year.

Operation NEON is new and arguably of greater importance in raising the country’s historically low diplomatic profile in the western Pacific than now fairly routine voyages through the Strait of Taiwan do.

The strait transit brought an unexpected surprise. At one point, Regina came close enough to the Chinese mainland that for a brief period, Canadian cellphones beeped the message: “Welcome to China.”

Matthew Fisher is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He was born in northwestern Ontario and raised there and in the Ottawa Valley. He has lived and worked abroad for 34 years as a foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail, Sun Media and Postmedia. Assignments have taken him to 171 countries. An eyewitness to 19 conflicts including Somalia, the Rwandan genocide, Chechnya, the Balkan Wars, Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, the two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan, Matthew was appointed as the first Bill Graham Centre/Massey College Resident Visiting Scholar in Foreign and Defence Policy in 2018.

This article appears courtesy of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and it may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.