Last week Russia and China conducted their first joint air force drills in the Asia-Pacific region. The exercises involved two Chinese H-6K jet bombers, two Russian Tu-95MS bombers, and one Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft. The Chinese and Russian aircraft flew over the Sea of Japan and into the contested air space claimed by both South Korea and Japan. The air space surrounds a small grouping of islands, which are claimed by both South Korea, as the Dokdo islands, and Japan, as the Takeshima islands. Japan and South Korea have contested the sovereignty over the islands dating back to the late seventeenth century. South Korea claims that Russian and Chinese aircraft breached the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ), which is a buffer zone meant for aircraft to identify themselves prior to entering territorial airspace. The initial breach by the Russian A-50 prompted South Korea to send F-15 and F-16 jets to intercept the aircraft. South Korean jets then fired up to 400 machine gun rounds and 20 flares as warning shots at the Russian aircraft. Similarly, Japan deployed jets to intercept the Russian aircraft but did not fire warning shots. Following the incident over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, Japan and South Korea have lodged formal complaints against the joint Sino-Russian operation.
The joint Sino-Russian air force operations have expectedly led to sharp criticism and complaints from U.S. ally, South Korea. South Korea lodged a complaint against Russia for violating KADIZ claiming that the invasion was in breach of international treaties. South Korea also warned that if such acts were repeated the response would be stronger. Similarly, Japan also lodged a formal complaint against Russia for dangerous manoeuvring near Japanese airspace. Representatives from China and Russia responded that KADIZ is not recognized by international law as territorial airspace but as international airspace where they have freedom of movement. Russia also denied that any warning shots were fired by South Korea. Unexpectedly, Japan also lodged a formal complaint against ally, South Korea, for firing warning shots at the Russian aircraft. The complaint likely stems from the territorial dispute over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands between South Korea and Japan. Experts in the region believe that Russia and China conducted the joint operation intentionally over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands in an effort to re-kindle the historical dispute between US allies. However, both Russia and China claim that the operations were not intended to be directed at any particular nation. The Sino-Russian operations come at a time of escalating tensions in the region particularly driven by U.S.-North Korean denuclearization talks.
The incident over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands underpins the ongoing but now stalled denuclearization talks between North Korea and the U.S. The context of these discussions may change radically if U.S. allies, South Korea and Japan, are too busy disputing the Dokdo/Takeshima islands rather than supporting the U.S. The timing of the joint Chinese-Russian air operations suggests that China and Russia are attempting to undermine U.S. support in the region. Despite alleged attempts to drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan both countries recognize the importance of their alliance. Both South Korea and Japan are potential targets of North Korean ballistic missiles, both are suspicious of growing Chinese influence, and both host U.S. military bases. Therefore, the likelihood of their alliance breaking down over islands in the Sea of Japan is low.
The joint operations are a strong signal of a growing military relationship between Russia and China, which will likely seek to grow their influence in the region. Further action will likely increase tension between the worlds largest economies and militaries. Should warning shots turn to a stronger response as South Korea has suggested, an incident could spark an international conflict.