The repeated harassment of a Canadian military plane by Chinese fighter jets in the North Pacific is “extremely troubling,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday.
The Department of National Defence (DND) confirmed media reporting earlier this week that its surveillance plane taking part in a mission to monitor U.N. sanctions evasion by North Korea had been regularly harassed while flying sorties in the region over a four-week mission last month.
“We obviously take this situation very seriously,” Trudeau said while announcing a land-claim settlement with the Siksika Nation in Alberta.
“So we will be bringing it up directly with Chinese officials and counterparts and ensuring that this doesn’t continue to be part of an escalatory pattern.”
The Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) commitment to the U.N.-sanctioned mission is called Op NEON.
It involves periodically deploying a frigate, a CP-140 Aurora Maritime Patrol Aircraft, or a combination of both.
The CP-140 was deployed from April 26 to May 26 at a Japanese air base.
The plane is used to monitor efforts by North Korea to evade sanctions by conducting ship-to-ship oil transfers. Once ships are identified, North Korea has to find new ones and it drives up the cost of its smuggling efforts.
While over international airspace, the CP-140 had “several interactions” with Chinese fighter jets, DND said.
“In some instances, the RCAF aircrew felt sufficiently at risk that they had to quickly modify their own flight path in order to increase separation and avoid a potential collision with the intercepting aircraft,” says a DND statement.
Op NEON is part of a U.S.-led multinational effort called the Pacific Security Maritime Exchange (PSMX), involving Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.
It came about in 2018 to help enforce U.N. sanctions against North Korea that were imposed between 2006 and 2017 in response to its nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile launches.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said on June 2 that she was “extremely preoccupied” by the reported incidents in the Pacific area involving Chinese aircraft.
When asked during a press conference if she considers the Chinese pilots’ actions a form of aggression, Joly said it was of significant importance and should be addressed.
Joly said she had her first conversation with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi around six weeks ago, noting it was the first political engagement since China’s arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
The two were detained by Beijing in 2018 in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wangzhou, who the United States wanted to be extradited over fraud charges.
“Now our objective is to be able to have a diplomatic relationship with China and to be able to address difficult issues,” Joly said.
It appears other countries involved in PSMX have not publicly reported similar harassment by China. The defence departments of France and the United States did not respond to a request for comment. DND has also said it doesn’t track nor would it comment on incidents affecting other military forces.