The recent intrusion by Russian and Chinese warplanes in airspace over the Sea of Japan was an intentional, carefully planned maneuver designed as a challenge to the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, according to South Korean media.
The South Korean and Japanese governments claim the incursion took place July 23, when three Russian warplanes and three Chinese warplanes flew near a group of islets, known as Dokdo and Takeshima, respectively. The two countries both claim the islets as their own territory.
The three Russian warplanes were two Tu-95 bombers and one A-50 early warning plane, while the three Chinese jets consisted of two H-6 bombers and a KJ-2000 airborne early warning and control system aircraft, according to Reuters. The neighboring countries claimed they were taking part in a long-range joint air patrol.
South Korea scrambled fighter jets in response, including F-15Ks and F-16Ks, and fired some 10 rounds of flares and 80 machine gun rounds as warning shots, according to South Korean media Yonhap News Agency.
Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force also scrambled fighter jets, according to Japanese English-language daily newspaper The Japan Times.
While South Korea’s presidential press secretary initially said that Russia apologized for the incident, hours later, Russia’s embassy in Seoul denied that it had made any apology, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, China’s defense ministry responded on July 25 that neither Russia nor China had entered the airspace of any country during their joint patrols.
South Korea daily newspaper The Hankyoreh, in an analysis article published on July 25, pointed out that the airspace incursion was intended as a challenge to the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
“China and Russia appear to be denying any violation of South Korean airspace to avoid any issues being raised with regard to their exercise, which was carefully planned for a long time as a move to oppose the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University.
U.S. President Donald Trump explained the strategy during an APEC summit in Vietnam in November 2017, saying that the United States seeks to ensure an open, free region with “robust trade relationships rooted in the principles of fairness and reciprocity.”
In July 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Washington. “We will help them [countries in Indo-Pacific] keep their people free from coercion or great power domination,” Pompeo stated.
Though Pompeo didn’t name China specifically, the comments were widely seen as a reference to China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, by which Beijing has sought to exert geopolitical influence by financing scores of infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and beyond. Many of the projects have faced criticism for indebting developing countries to China while failing to provide jobs and other benefits to the local economy.
In June, the Pentagon issued a report on the Indo-Pacific, highlighting how military operations by Russia and China in the region were undermining the rules-based international order—and if left unaddressed, would undermine the United States’ ability to deter their aggression and coercion against nearby countries.
Cho Sung-ryul, a senior research fellow for the South Korean government-funded Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), told The Hankyoreh that China and Russia “have been shifting into a quasi-military alliance against the Indo-Pacific strategy” since the Pentagon report’s publication. He also noted that “China has responded very sensitively” to South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressing that the country would support the U.S. strategy, during a June 30 summit with Trump.
“The Chinese and Russia military aircraft’s choice to enter over Dokdo was intended to deal a blow to the Indo-Pacific strategy by further deepening the fissure between South Korea and Japan, which are already in a state of conflict,” Cho added.