The Canadian Navy and the New Naval Environment in Asia

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Special Advisor (Policy), Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters, Canada. The views expressed here are the author's and should not be construed in any way as the official policy of Canada's Department of National Defence.

CLAIMS OF NEWNESS ARE FREQUENTLY OVERBLOWN. But an examination of the Indo-Pacific naval environment over the past half-dozen years reveals a number of remarkable developments. The Chinese bracketed Taiwan with missiles (the Americans responded by inserting aircraft carriers), the Indians acquired the capability of deploying nuclear weapons at sea, and both India and China undertook historic, long-range voyages. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) despatched warships to the Indian Ocean for the first time since 1945 while the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) embarked on its first round-the-world cruise. The JMSDF opened fire in anger for the first time in 1999 when it sank a suspected North Korean spy ship. Likewise, the Royal Thai and Republic of (South) Korea navies engaged in armed clashes at sea.

Regional navies began to build or buy bigger and bigger surface combatants including obsolescent Russian aircraft carriers. Warships of 6000-tonnes or over became more common in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Similarly, the number of conventional submarines rose dramatically with Australia, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and China adding them to their inventories. Even Taiwan attempted to acquire eight new diesel-electric boats while Canada began taking delivery of four Upholder-class submarines from the United Kingdom. These acquisitions were buttressed by the appearance of maritime patrol aircraft and by the deployment of new types of sea-going missiles.

Piracy and sea robbery (attacks on ships not on the high seas) reached unprecedented levels in Southeast Asia, and disputes over fisheries, boundaries, and islets kept regional navies on a state of alert. At the same time the Indian and Chinese navies engaged in high-level naval diplomacy in Southeast Asia; the latter establishing its presence on the Bay of Bengal while the former developed links with China's rival, Vietnam.

Both navies were the subject of increased attention by the United States Navy (USN). The growth of the PLAN was a source of concern for the Pentagon, and United States-China relations were strained by the willingness of the administration of George W. Bush to provide naval hardware to Taiwan. While relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorated in early 2001, following the collision of a Chinese interceptor plane and an American EP-3 surveillance plane on 1 April, they improved markedly between Washington and New Delhi, even before the events of 11 September 2001 united the two nations in the 'War on Terrorism.' Indeed, the revival of the relationship between the USN and the Indian Navy (frozen after India's nuclear tests in May 1998) constituted one of the major maritime developments in recent years. Elsewhere, however, USN-JMSDF collaboration on a theatre missile defence system for northeast Asian waters had a less positive impact, exciting vigorous opposition from the Chinese.

For its part, Canada transferred a number of ships from the Atlantic command (MARLANT) to Maritime Forces Pacific (MARPAC), the naval formation on the West Coast. The Canadian Navy operated in the Persian Gulf from the early 1990s onwards as part of the United Nations-sanctioned maritime interdiction force against Iraq. Those deployments resulted in high levels of interoperability between Canadian and American warships. That interoperability facilitated Canadian naval support for the Australian-led humanitarian intervention in East Timor in 1999-2000 and underpins Canada's current commitment in southwest Asia to the United States-led War on Terrorism. In fact, Canada has probably contributed a larger proportion of its navy to the coalition effort than any other nation, and the Canadian Navy has had more ships engaged in the Arabian Sea campaign than at any time since 1945. …