China and Russia conducted their first-ever joint air patrol last week by sending bombers along the South Korean coast, intruding into its air defense identification zone as well as that of Japan, with Seoul charging that a Russian warplane had violated Korean airspace – the first such incursion since the Korean War. Japan, too, sent its jets aloft to intercept the Russian aircraft.
Russia’s defense ministry issued a statement denying any violation of airspace, saying the flights had taken place “over a pre-planned route.” China’s foreign ministry pointed out that the airspace in an air defense identification zone is “not territorial airspace and countries enjoy the freedom of overflight under international law.”
China’s defense ministry spokesman, Wu Qian, explained that the purpose of the joint patrol “is aimed at deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership of China and Russia, and boosting the strategy coordination and joint combat ability of the two nations.” He said it did not target “any third nation.”
Yet, the two countries chose to patrol the sensitive airspace along the Korean coast, above waters linking Korea and Japan. They must have known that there would be a reaction to such an exercise.
The Russian intrusion into airspace claimed by both South Korea and Japan triggered off several hundred rounds of warning shots fired by Korean jets toward the Russian A-50 airborne warning and control plane.
Instead of uniting Seoul and Tokyo against the intruder, it had the opposite effect, with Japan lodging protests with both Moscow and Seoul, with the former for the airspace violation and with the latter for having tried to drive the violating aircraft away.
Caught in this awkward situation, a Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn, asked to comment, asserted: “The United States strongly supports our [South Korean] and Japanese allies and their responses to airspace incursions by Chinese and Russian aircraft.”
Such disunity among American allies contrasts sharply with the enhanced military cooperation between China and Russia.
This year, China and Russia upgraded their relationship to that of a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.”
The day before the joint patrol, Russia announced that it was working with China on closer military cooperation and confirmed the delivery of 24 SU-35 combat aircraft to China under a US$2.5 billion deal and the offer of an additional batch of its most advanced fighters to Beijing in June. In the past, Russia was reluctant to sell such military technology to China.
The day after the patrol, China released a new defense white paper that welcomed the continued development of the military relationship between China and Russia “at a high level, enriching the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and playing a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability.”
At the personal level, President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have been meeting multiple times a year since 2013 and Xi calls Putin his “best and bosom friend.”
The two countries have also increased their economic ties, with trade exceeding US$100 billion last year for the first time.
As the Harvard scholar Graham Allison recently recalled, former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had warned before his death in 2017 that the most dangerous scenario facing the United States was “a grand coalition of China and Russia… united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.”
Yet, in the face of this grave threat, America’s two most important allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea, are at each other’s throats rather than rallying around the triple alliance.
South Korea has already made it known that it may not renew an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan when it expires. Japan for its part is preparing to remove South Korea from a list of countries given preferential trade treatment, possibly as early as August.
Faced with this dire situation, Washington may finally act. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Bangkok in early August to attend the Asean Regional Forum, both his Japanese and Korean counterparts, Taro Kono and Kang Kyung-wha, will be there as well. “There’s going to be a desire to get together,” an American diplomat told reporters, indicating that the US was “concerned” about South Korea-Japan ties and how this may affect efforts to denuclearize North Korea.
American President Donald Trump himself recently said that if Japan and South Korea need him, “I’m there.”
The China-Russia air patrol, it seems, may have added a sense of urgency to repair the South Korea-Japan relationship. If so, it may not only have the effect of strengthening the China-Russia bilateral military relationship, it may also help to repair the US-Japan-South Korea triple alliance as well.
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