Canadian Senate lost at South China Sea

Senate motion censuring China for its behaviour in troubled waters may have finally carried the day, but events have overtaken Beijing’s relationship with Manila

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 4:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 4:11am

The passage of a Canadian Senate motion censuring China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea has angered Beijing and embarrassed Ottawa as the two countries try to improve relations.

But behind the motion, which is non-binding, there has been much politicking, and more noise than substance. Since Canada has little skin in the game when it comes to the South China Sea, cynics may think the motion has been a fight within the non-elected Senate between forces against China and those favourable to it.

China furious after Canada’s Senate condemns South China Sea activity

It’s worth considering the key personalities involved. The two-year-old motion was sponsored by Conservative Party senator Thanh Hai Ngo. The anti-communist senator was born in Vietnam and had worked as an officer in both the military and the foreign affairs department under the South Vietnamese government. After the fall of Saigon, he escaped to Canada.

However, the motion has been held up for almost two years by a coalition of Liberal Party and independent senators, who were led by Yuen Pau Woo. 

The Singaporean-Canadian senator was a former head of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a think tank that advocates closer ties with China and other countries in the region. He used his first speech in the Senate 18 months ago to argue against the motion.

The motion itself warns against “the escalating and hostile behaviour” exhibited by China in the South China Sea” and urges all parties in the region to uphold the rights of freedom of navigation under international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Australia defends rights after ships challenged in South China Sea

It calls for an end to China’s building of artificial islands and “militarisation”, and asks all countries involved to seek a peaceful solution under international arbitration.

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China had no historical title over the South China Sea and that it had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights.

The motion might have passed, but only with 43 votes against 28, and six abstentions. It was hardly a ringing endorsement. 

In any case, events have overtaken it. The Philippines no longer bothers with the decision of The Hague as it seeks closer ties with China.

Xi Jinping is playing the Trump game in South China Sea

The South China Sea is calmer today than it was two years ago. The Trudeau government under the Liberal Party is ignoring the motion. Korea is getting all the attention.

By delaying the motion for so long, Woo and his allies may have already won.