A nighttime transit through the Taiwan Strait is a test of nerves, seamanship and political awareness in an environment where a slight miscalculation could potentially lead to an international conflict.
It’s the first night in November. It’s dark – ink black before the moonrise – and Royal Canadian Navy Cmdr. Sam Patchell is taking that test.
His 4,800-ton warship, the frigate HMCS Ottawa, weaves and dodges between dozens of commercial fishing boats and merchant vessels at speeds of up to 24 mph, all the while tasked with staying outside boundaries dictated by international law, including the recognized territorial waters of China.
The Ottawa’s radar tracks Chinese warships, which, as they try to keep up with the Canadian frigate, are also weaving in and around the red and green lights of the commercial vessels plying their trade in one of the world’s most crowded waterways.
As the captain of a Royal Canadian Navy frigate, Patchell keeps a lawyer and a public affairs officer by his side, because, for Canada – and other Western allies of the United States – this is all about upholding the “rules-based international order,” and if the Canadian ship violates the law of the sea by intruding in territorial waters, or gives adversaries a chance to spin Ottawa’s course as “provocative,” Patchell’s 12-hour cruise would swiftly become an international incident.
And he’s not just acting for himself. A mile behind the Ottawa, a US Navy destroyer follows Patchell’s lead. That oncoming fishing boat might miss Ottawa, but if he leaves too little space for it to maneuver then it will be the US destroyer that could run into trouble.
It is just one of the tense moments CNN gets to see played out in some of the world’s most contested waters as it joins the Ottawa’s crew for a voyage spanning more than 3,500 miles (5,600 kilometers).
There are live-fire exercises, with the guns of three navies trying to blast a speedboat drone to smithereens.
There are nail-biting refuelings at sea, during which the 440-foot-long Ottawa slices through the waves less than 200 feet away for supply ships as big as 680-feet long (that’s longer than two football fields).
And there are Chinese warships, almost always on the horizon, looking shadowy as they move in and out of the rain showers that so frequently occur across the warm waters of the South China Sea.
Other times, the Chinese presence is in the air, and it can be threatening as the crew of the Ottawa’s helicopter discovered when it was twice intercepted by Chinese fighter jets over international waters. The Chinese jets executed maneuvers that “put the safety of all personnel involved at unnecessary risk,” Canada’s Defense Ministry said.
But it isn’t all tension. There are also barbecues, burgers and beers, a Halloween movie night, and an outrageous crossing-the-equator ceremony, complete with a homemade wooden dunking tub and sentences handed down by King Neptune.
A dangerous place
The Taiwan Strait, the 110-mile wide waterway separating mainland China from the democratically-ruled island of Taiwan, is considered one of the most potentially volatile portions of sea in the world.
While conflict rages in Gaza and Ukraine, many analysts fear that these waters could be the next arena for war.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has vowed to take control of Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party considers part of its territory – despite never having ruled it – and by force if necessary.
But the United States is committed to providing the island the means to defend itself, and Washington has been regularly sending warships through the strait to demonstrate that ships have the right of free passage through it under the international law of the sea.
The November 1 transit of USS Rafael Peralta is the sixth this year by US Navy or Coast Guard ships, according to a database kept by Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Beijing calls these sailings a provocation and a violation of Chinese territory.
The Royal Canadian Navy has joined the US Navy on some of sailings, including one last June during which a Chinese warship came dangerously close to the American vessel USS Chung-hoon – so close that the US captain had to take action to avoid a collision.
Chess on the water
That incident is on the mind of the commander of HMCS Ottawa as his ship enters the strait from the south in the early evening of November 1 with the Rafael Peralta close behind.
“We just want to get through here safely,” Patchell, the Ottawa’s captain, says.
“The Chung-hoon incident is something I’m thinking about.”
Patchell explains his plan for the 12-hour strait crossing. He’ll stick as close as possible to a line that keeps his ship at least 24 nautical miles from the coasts of both mainland China and Taiwan.
Although the internationally recognized limit for territorial waters is 12 nautical miles, there’s another 12 outside of that called the “contiguous zone.” It’s a “buffer zone” to allow mainland China or Taiwan, in this case, to warn ships away from their territorial waters, he says, but passing ships have every right to be in it.
Still, the Ottawa’s course prompts a warning from Taiwan’s military, which has ships in the strait monitoring the progress of the Ottawa and Rafael Peralta. A voice over the radio advises Patchell to alter course to avoid Taiwan’s zone.