As international tension smoldered this week over Taiwan, the Pacific Ocean saw a not-so-subtle display of Allied military solidarity – one that included a Canadian frigate.
A joint military exercise off the Japanese island of Okinawa last weekend brought together three Western aircraft carrier attack groups and a Japanese helicopter carrier that is now capable of launching F-35 stealth fighters.
The assembly, which included 17 ships from six different countries, sent an unequivocal message to China.
In an exclusive interview, the commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21) task force told CBC News that the one-day exercise was a show of solidarity and how Western allies can work together in a way transparent.
“It is an important message to those here that nations like us truly believe in free navigation, free trade and are truly alarmed by the militarization of the region,” said Royal Navy Commodore Steve Moorhouse. .
He said he had no doubt the message was understood.
“Chinese intelligence ships were in the area,” he said. “So I have absolutely no doubt that the message would have spread to China fairly quickly.”
The exercise was a milestone in several ways. Since the end of World War II, the Japanese no longer have aircraft carriers and their army has maintained a defensive posture. Last weekend’s fighter jet test saw a US Marine F-35B land and take off from the JS Izumo helicopter carrier – which makes it a de facto fixed-wing aircraft carrier.
The exercise was also one of the largest aircraft carrier gatherings in the Pacific in decades.
Captain Doug Layton, captain of HMCS Winnipeg, told CBC News that the sight of so many large warships and such firepower gathered in one space left the sailors aboard his frigate in awe.
“You should have seen the looks on their faces,” Layton said, adding that at one point, “twelve fighter jets flew over us, a combination of F35s and F18s.”
The Canadian frigate was docked alongside the Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, on a world tour.
“I have been in the Navy for 20 years and have never been in such a showcase of naval power,” Layton said.
The British have been largely absent from the Pacific Ocean for almost two decades. Moorhouse said the Royal Navy has re-learned to operate in the vast expanse. The trip helps lay the groundwork for the semi-permanent stationing of two British warships in the area, he added.
As the exercise unfolded, the China People’s Liberation Army Air Force was in the midst of a series of sorties into the Taiwan Air Defense Zone.
For several consecutive days, some of Beijing’s most advanced fighters and bombers circled around the disputed island’s actual airspace, inside the surrounding buffer zone.
No less than 150 planes took part in the incursions.
The thefts began Friday, China’s National Day, and have been described by the US State Department as “provocative” and “unsettling.”
Many experts said the timing of the flights was not surprising, but the number of warplanes involved was.
Julie Clark, a Canadian Institute of World Affairs scholar who teaches at the University of Waterloo, said Beijing likely felt compelled to make a strong demonstration after the recent announcement of a security deal involving the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, which will see the latter acquire nuclear submarine technology.
China is backing down
The incursions “appear to be a strong message to the West – particularly the United States with some of its recent initiatives with strategic security alliances – to indicate that they are not a country they can be pushed into.” Clark said.
The recent Washington summit of so-called quadrilateral (quadrilateral) nations – a strategic security dialogue involving the United States, India, Japan and Australia – has likely rocked China as well, Clark suggested.
On Wednesday, it was announced that the Presidents of the United States and China will host a virtual summit later this year.
Clark said this event will be a very important opportunity to reduce the growing tensions in the region. Many of China’s neighbors have been rocked by Beijing’s military build-up and provocative actions – but also, Clark said, these countries are being offered a difficult choice as Allied military displays become more visible.
“There have been movements from other Asian countries – or at least pressure on them – to take sides,” she said.