Family members and friends wait to welcome home the crew aboard HMCS Ottawa following its four-month deployment to the Asia-Pacific region as it returns to CFB Esquimalt in British Columbia Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Newly released documents are shedding light on the secret discussions between Canada's top diplomatic and defence officials around the Ottawa's passage through a sensitive strait near China last year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Top officials weighed Canadian warship’s passage through sensitive strait near China

OTTAWA — Newly released documents have shed light on the secret government talks and debate that took place ahead of a Canadian warship’s passage through a sensitive waterway near China last year.

Those discussions included a private meeting between the top bureaucrats at the Department of National Defence and Global Affairs Canada, weeks before HMCS Ottawa sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

Defence officials were also told to keep quiet about the frigate’s trip in September 2019, three months after Chinese fighter jets buzzed two other Canadian ships making the same voyage.

And they were ordered to keep the Privy Council Office, the department that supports the prime minister, in the loop as the Ottawa was making its way through the waterway.

The unusual level of attention from the highest levels of government laid out in the documents, obtained by The Canadian Press through access to information, underscores the sensitivities surrounding the trip.

That is because while much of the world considers the 180-kilometre strait to be international waters, Beijing claims ownership of the strait separating mainland China from Taiwan.

Beijing, which regards the self-ruled island of Taiwan as a rogue province, has repeatedly condemned such passages by foreign warships from the U.S., Canada and elsewhere as illegal.

HMCS Ottawa ended up sailing through the Taiwan Strait twice in early September. Media reports at the time said the frigate was shadowed by the Chinese navy.

The heavily redacted memo to Global Affairs deputy minister Marta Morgan dated Aug. 7, 2019 starts by saying the Defence Department was looking for a risk assessment for the Ottawa’s planned transit.

Defence Department deputy minister Jody Thomas “has also requested a meeting with you on Aug. 12 to discuss this deployment,” the memo adds.

While HMCS Ottawa was in the region at the time helping enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea, the memo noted that the frigate was due to make a port visit in Bangkok in mid-September.

Defence officials have publicly stated that the decision to have the Ottawa sail through the strait was because the route was the fastest way for the frigate to reach Bangkok from its position near North Korea.

The memo backs that assertion, noting that going around Taiwan would add one or two days to the trip each way.

Yet it also says the navy’s presence in the South China Sea, of which the Taiwan Strait is a part, “has demonstrated Canadian support for our closest partners and allies, regional security and the rules-based international order.”

Global Affairs ultimately agreed to the Ottawa’s sailing through the strait, but called on defence officials to keep the trip quiet, in large part because of fears the trip would coincide with the federal election campaign.

“Finally, GAC will ask DND to ensure that it keeps PCO informed as this naval deployment progresses,” the memo adds.

Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney described the discussions leading up to the Ottawa’s transit of the Taiwan Strait as “an illustration of smart and effective consultation producing the right decision.”

“It is tremendously important that China sees that, in addition to the United States, other serious countries like Canada will not be intimidated into surrendering the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan itself to China’s complete control,” he said.

“The RCN, working closely with Global Affairs, is promoting the national interest and asserting our sovereignty from the far side of the world.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

China

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Town of Ponoka and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) have ratified a new agreement, averting a strike. (File photo from Facebook)
Alberta gov’t ‘using pandemic as shield to lay off workers,’ says AUPE

The Government of Alberta’s “attacks on workers” is continuing with a new… Continue reading

Rocky Mountain House RCMP, EMS, Search and Rescue, STARS air ambulance and Alstrom Helicopters worked together to rescue a fallen ice climber Friday. (Photo contributed by Rocky Mountain House RCMP)
Rocky Mountain House RCMP help rescue fallen ice climber

Rocky Mountain RCMP helped assist a fallen ice climber Friday afternoon. At… Continue reading

Students Association of Red Deer College president Brittany Lausen says she’s pleased the college is offering students a choice to attend class in-person or remotely. (Red Deer Advocate file photo)
Red Deer College winter term enrolment dips

Enrolment down about six per cent but mix of online and in-person instruction is going over well

Brett Salomons, of Salomons Commercial, and Mark Jones, CEO of the Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre, in the CACAC's new temporary home. (Contributed photo)
Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre’s One Day Challenge returns

Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre has announced its One Day Challenge is… Continue reading

Dwayne Buckle, 40 of Red Deer finished a 1,638-kilometre walk, in honour of his family. The 12-week, 82 day-journey wrapped up in Port Hardy, B.C. on Monday. Facebook photo
Red Deer man completes 1,638 km hike for cancer research

Dwayne Buckle, a Red Deer firefighter returned home Friday after his 12-week journey

A Suncor logo is shown at the company's annual meeting in Calgary, Thursday, May 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Body of worker whose bulldozer fell through ice on inactive tailings pond recovered

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — Oilpatch giant Suncor says the body of a… Continue reading

A restaurant manager in Orlando used a sign to secretly ask an 11-year-old boy if he needs help from his family after they were spotted withholding food from him. (Photo courtesy Orlando Police Department)
WATCH: Restaurant manager uses secret note to ‘rescue’ child, says Orlando Police

The manager of an Orlando restaurant is receiving praise from police after… Continue reading

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will cripple struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

VICTORIA — A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Quebec and Ontario, the two provinces hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic,… Continue reading

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police "E" Division Headquarters, in Surrey, B.C., on Friday April 13, 2018. A young snowshoer who set out alone on a rugged mountain trail on Vancouver's north shore Thursday has died. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Snowshoer dies after overnight search on Vancouver-area mountain: RCMP

SQUAMISH, B.C. — A snowshoer who set out alone on a rugged… Continue reading

nunavut
‘It was joyous:’ Sun returns to some Nunavut communities for first time in weeks

IQALUIT — A sliver of orange rose over Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, earlier… Continue reading

People take photos through the extensive security surrounding the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, ahead of the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Susan Walsh
Less pomp, very different circumstances as D.C. prepares to inaugurate Biden, Harris

WASHINGTON — Some pomp. Very different circumstances. Inauguration day is supposed to… Continue reading

Winnipeg Jets' Nathan Beaulieu (88) and Nikolaj Ehlers (27) defend against Jansen Harkins (12) during scrimmage at their NHL training camp practice in Winnipeg, Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Winnipeg Jets cancel practice due to possible COVID-19 exposure

WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets have cancelled their practice today due to… Continue reading

Most Read