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The Canadian military's search for 'gravitas' in Asia

Photo: United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Canadian leaders search for "gravitas" and "respect" from their U.S. counterparts is adding to friction in the Asia-Pacific. Amidst tension on the Korean Peninsula, the Canadian Navy has joined Washington's "pivot" towards Asia.

Recently departed, HMCS Chicoutimi is expected to be in the Asia-Pacific until March. While they refused to offer CBC News much detail, a military spokesperson said the first ever Victoria-class submarine deployed to the region will "provide the government with defence and security options should a timely Canadian response be necessary."

Chicoutimi's deployment follows on the heels of a six-month tour of Asia by HMCS Ottawa and Winnipeg, which included "freedom of navigation" operations and exercises alongside U.S., Japanese, Australian and other countries' warships. When the two Canadian gunboats travelled through the South China Sea with their allies, Chinese vessels came within three nautical miles and "shadowed" them for 36 hours. On another occasion a Chinese intelligence vessel monitored HMCS Winnipeg and Ottawa while they exercised with a South Korean ship.

After visiting HMCS Ottawa and Winnipeg in Singapore Chief of Defence Staff Jon Vance declared, "if one wants to have any respect or gravitas you have to be in that region."

During the past decade the U.S. and its principle Asian economic ally Japan have lost their economic hegemony over the region. With Chinese power growing and the Obama administration's "pivot" designed to contain it, Washington has sought to stoke longstanding territorial and maritime boundary disputes in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and other nations. As part of efforts to rally regional opposition to China, the U.S. Navy engages in regular "freedom of navigation" operations, which see warships travel through or near disputed waters -- kind of like the logic employed by street gangs defending "their" territory.

The Canadian Navy has supported Washington's aggressive posture. They've increased participation in patrols and exercises in the region. In 2012 it came to light the military was seeking a small base or "hub" in southeast Asia -- probably in Singapore -- with a port facility.

Unfortunately, exerting naval power in the region is nothing new for this country. For two decades the Canadian navy has made regular port visits to Asia and since its 1971 inception Canada has participated in every Rim of the Pacific Exercise, which is a massive U.S.-led maritime warfare training every two years.

Immediately after U.S. forces invaded Korea in 1950, Ottawa sent three gunboats to the region. Ultimately eight Canadian warships with 3,600 soldiers were deployed to the country during the conflict (a total of 27,000 Canadians fought in the three-year war that left millions dead). Canadian ships transported troops and bombed the North. According to a Canadian War Museum exhibit, "During the war, Canadians became especially good at 'train busting.' This meant running in close to shore, usually at night, and risking damage from Chinese and North Korean artillery in order to destroy trains or tunnels on Korea's coastal railway. Of the 28 trains destroyed by United Nations warships in Korea, Canadian vessels claimed eight."

Before the outbreak of the Korean War the Canadian Navy sought to exert itself in the region. In a bizarre move, Ottawa sent a naval vessel to China in 1949 as the Communists were on the verge of victory. According to Canadian Gunboat Diplomacy, the boat was sent too late to stop the Kuomintang's defeat by Mao's forces and was not needed to evacuate Canadians since British boats could remove them. The objective, it seems, was to demonstrate to the US and UK "that Canada was a willing partner," particularly in light of the emerging north Atlantic alliance.

And like the smaller, weaker kid in a street gang our "leaders" are trying to prove how tough we are. Need someone to attack a house? Sure, we'll do it. Show them our firepower? We're in.

Canadian military planners' search for "gravitas" is akin to gang logic. But, let's hope our behaviour in Asia doesn't lead to where gang warfare has taken many North American cities.

Photo: United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons

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