Over the horizon: the Royal Canadian Navy looks west

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Crowsnest - Spring 2017 / April 26, 2017

By Ashley Milburn

As shoppers bustled through the streets of Victoria, B.C, last December, they would have seen the lyrics of one of the season’s carols come to life: three ships come sailing in. More specifically, they would have seen two frigates and a replenishment ship from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

To some, the image of Chinese navy ships set against the backdrop of Victoria’s waterfront may have been an unusual sight. However, for navies, regardless of the season, visiting overseas ports and hosting foreign counterparts at home is part of their core business.

While navies are designed, equipped and mandated to defend against external threats, in peacetime, they also serve as a powerful instrument of foreign policy. Indeed, every time the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) engages with its international partners, it is building and strengthening cooperation, goodwill and trust – all critical elements in ensuring the security and prosperity of Canadians at home and abroad.

This is the very essence of naval diplomacy. Unlike any other defence platform, naval ships are uniquely positioned to be able deploy almost anywhere in the world, telegraph national resolve and serve as a platform for engagement. To that end, RCN ships cross, quite literally, every single line of longitude while also ranging from the Arctic Circle to the equator in support of Government of Canada values and objectives.

Increasingly, those objectives are linked to the Indo-Asia Pacific, a chiefly maritime theatre at the heart of the global economy.

As author Rose George highlights in her book, Ninety Percent of Everything, there is an “invisible industry” of 100,000 container ships that puts clothes on our backs, gas in our cars, and food on our plates. For the last three decades, Asia has been at the centre of that phenomenon and continues to set the pace: the region accounts for two-thirds of the wold’s gross domestic product, 40 percent of global production, and hosts nine of the top 10 busiest ports in the world.

As Canadians look increasingly to the maritime realm for our collective prosperity, both in terms of economic well-being and sovereignty, it is the navy’s modus operandi to defend the global system at sea and from the sea.

While Canada’s economic and trade links to Asia are a driving force behind national interest in the region, there are signals from players in Asia that Canada needs to be a more engaged security partner. This, of course, is an important element of international relations, but not without challenges. Simply put, the Indo-Asia Pacific is a unique theatre.

Spanning from India to the small island states of Oceania, the region is home to more than 60 per cent of the global population, hundreds of different languages, a variety of political systems, and complex histories amongst the region’s centuries-long civilizations and various sub-regions.

Such characteristics, paired with the sheer distance from Canadian shores to Asian cities, can be overwhelming and even seem to justify the argument to pull back.  However, where there are challenges, there are opportunities, and that is the very reason why Canada is leaning forward with its Indo-Asia Pacific partners in a real and meaningful way.  

This is where the RCN, and specifically the Pacific Fleet based in Esquimalt, B.C., can, and is, playing a very real role. Building on the PLAN visit to Victoria, the Esquimalt-based frigate Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Ottawa will visit Shanghai this summer. The reciprocal goodwill visit to China is part of a larger RCN deployment to the Indo-Asia Pacific in 2017: over the course of five months, two frigates – HMCS Ottawa and HMCS Winnipeg – through separate and combined port visits, will visit eight countries including China, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Sri Lanka.

While deployed, the ships will also conduct valuable training exercises with regional partners and allies which will further the RCN’s contribution to the pursuit of good order at sea and prepare Canadian sailors to be able to respond to any Government of Canada requirement that may arise.

This is the very foundation of the RCN’s ability to maximize the operational and strategic use of RCN assets away from home. The success of this ability was demonstrated by HMCS Vancouver’s engagement in the region in 2016, which saw it complete numerous planned diplomatic and operational engagements, as well as provide assistance to New Zealand following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake off its southern island. 

This  highlights and reinforces the unparalleled value of having a capable, adaptable RCN platform in a region as dynamic as the Indo-Asia Pacific. The navy’s enduring role in defending the global system at sea and from the sea begins by deploying forward and strengthening partnerships.

As the RCN’s recently published strategic outlook, Leadmark 2050, notes, “Every warship deployment and port-of-call is laden with symbolic and diplomatic meaning. A warship alongside provides an impressive and ‘up close’ example of national ‘hard power’ competence, while the actions of the crew…provides stirring examples of ‘soft power’ in action. Canadian [diplomatic] missions overseas almost unfailingly report…that a warship visit has materially advanced and reinforced national policy goals through the goodwill that our sailors generate.”

 As Canadian citizens see their navy sail over the horizon, it is important to realize the spectrum of capability that RCN ships and sailors represent. They are warriors, peace-keepers and diplomats; and most importantly, they are Canadians. Their sustained and meaningful presence in a region as dynamic as the Indo-Asia Pacific allows the RCN to contribute to the message that Canada is an internationally engaged partner, as well as demonstrate Canada’s commitment to a region that directly impacts the security and prosperity of Canadians from coast, to coast, to coast.