Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Canadian Shanghaied by Canadians in Shanghai

Last Friday, I attended a Canada China Business Council-hosted luncheon in Shanghai aboard the HMCS Regina Halifax Class Frigate, one of the most advanced ships of any navy. The ship is manned by a top-notch crew who are still jazzed about their recent war game exercise that culminated in sinking four American and Australian gun-ships in just 10 minutes, without receiving any fire.

During the luncheon, I spoke with Dr. James Boutilier, the Special Advisor of Policy at Canada’s Maritime Forces Pacific HQ, who "whispers in the ear" of the Admiral, and met Commodore Bruce Donaldson, Commander of the Canadian Pacific Fleet. Dr. Boutilier agreed that Americans are dumped on the world over, but indeed are acting like a benevolent empire, akin to the final stages of the British Empire; while it is the French who are the real "bastards" on the international scene; but for some reason the world turns a blind—or more aptly put—ignorant eye to their transgressions.

He joked about how the French economy is sliding to even greater peril than the American one and yet they are still throwing their weight around in Africa and even Iraq. He said that the Beijing government has been for decades decrying American hegemony, but over the past decade, the label has been deliberately dropped from official usage, as China is now itself cruising towards regional dominance.

The tour of the vessel was of course interesting, and I took some pictures of the non-classified areas, unsuccessfully tried to get invited back on board for the evening ceremony marking the meeting between the PLA and Canadian navies, and went on my merry way back into the snarl of Shanghai afternoon traffic. My send-off was a big smile, wave and "goodbye" from a machine-gun wielding Canadian guard from the deck as I descended the walkway. Canadians are always so friendly!

I ran some errands and then wandered about Shanghai. I happened upon two foreigners desperately trying to flag down a cab—an impossible feat at rush hour in the centre of Shanghai. I wished them luck as I walked past them, and one shouted, "No worries, we're using Canadian ingenuity!" I turned back, and realized based upon their physical statures and mustaches that they were probably from the ship that I had just been on a few hours earlier. I mustered up some of my own Canadian ingenuity—whatever that is—and joked that I had tried to get invited back for the evening party. It turns out they were Officers and had the authority to make it so. We fortuitously flagged down a cab and we managed to get there in just 15 minutes, not a minute too late for them to get changed into their whites. I was back aboard, now "officially" invited, literally.

I mentioned to one of Officers about how this was the second time that day that I had boarded the ship without being searched. He told me that they were essentially at the lowest security status possible; even their homeport in B.C. is always higher security threat. Seems that the world's largest communist country and police state has one good thing going for it; and that's safety. But I realized that within a moment's notice, anyone on board would have been able to take me out if I were to go postal.

I sought out some more details about their recent victory at sea as part of last month's Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC) mock battle consisting of 30 ships from 5 navies, including 2 American aircraft carriers. At night, the Regina turned off its lights and radar, and shadowed a much older and weaker Australian ship. The ploy succeeded; the "enemy" patrol ignored this non-threatening Australian decoy, and seemingly from out of nowhere, the Regina "launched" 4 Harpoon missiles to take out the three American and one Australian vessels. No wonder the Canadian Navy is respected around the world and often takes a leadership position during international exercises, as it had in this case. Several Officers agreed that it came down to training instead of just buying the latest gadgets. I guess they have to make the best of their small budgets.

The visit to Shanghai is part of a "Friendship" Tour around several North-East Asian countries called Westploy. The event I crashed that night was a meeting of the Canadian Commodore and PLA Rear-Admiral Wang. I asked a Lieutenant (who also advises that same Canadian Admiral--he is the military's "counter-balance" to Dr. Boutilier's academic whispering) why he had been recently flown in, and he said with a smile that he couldn't comment. But several Officers and advisors told me that indeed the Canadian Navy, and many navies of the Pacific, are growing increasingly concerned about the rising strength of the Chinese military.

This Lieutenant was ecstatic when he saw his idol arrive, Gwynne Dyer,
an author of several books, BBC documentaries and a syndicated columnist about worldly military affairs. Gwynne agreed with me that Eric Margolis, a columnist for the Toronto Sun, usually publishes nonsense, but gets it right enough times to make him a worthwhile read.

I briefly spoke with PLA Rear-Admiral Wang and talked with as many Chinese sailors as I could. As the helipad flight-deck party wound down, the Officers took me below deck to the Officer's Mess to continue drinking Halifax-brewed Keith's. The Australian consul and all tiers of command drifted in, and eventually everyone decided to hit Shanghai proper. Just as we were leaving, I couldn't find the Officer who had let me leave my unexamined bag in his berth, but thankfully at that time I was chatting with the second-in-command who could easily locate it.

Remarkably, each sailor I spoke with was eloquent; intelligent and only had good things to say about their ship, their crew and their navy. They seemed so Canadian: friendly, courteous, and good-natured.

I retold this story to an Australian friend of mine, Eve, a pre-Tiananmen resident of China who started-up the first catering service for the embassies in Beijing starved for non-Chinese food. I mentioned how I had met the Commodore and had discussed with him the use dolphins by the U.S. Navy. She trumped my story, as her brother-in-law is half-way-up the U.S. Navy's chain of command and he has personally trained dolphins and now commands a group that uses them for reconnaissance and to kill enemy navy seals—much more sophisticated than any tricks at Marine Land.

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