- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2019

South Korea’s military fired hundreds of warning shots to ward off Russian warplanes that Seoul says violated the country’s airspace Monday night, but the unprecedented confrontation highlights a much more serious geopolitical challenge for the U.S. as Moscow and Beijing deepen their game-changing military alliance.

For the first time, Chinese planes joined Russian fighters for the long-range patrol mission over the East Sea/Sea of Japan. Russian media reported that two Russian Tu-95ms and two Chinese Xian H-6 bombers took part in the exercise.

Aircraft from both nations, government officials in Seoul said, strayed in South Korean airspace for well over an hour and ignored multiple warnings to change course, leading South Korean fighter planes to fire about 20 flares and 360 warning shots.

“We take the situation very seriously and will take stronger measures if there is a recurrence of such a violation,” Chung Eui-yong, national security aide to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday. “We request the Security Council of the Russian Federation to take appropriate measures.”

South Korean officials said the incident was the first time a foreign military plane had violated its airspace since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The stunning incident brings into sharp focus the burgeoning partnership between Moscow and Beijing. Over the past 18 months, the partnership between the Cold War rivals has included a series of major war games, rapidly growing sales of military hardware and a host of other steps that analysts say are designed to create a new anti-American power player in the region. The two nations announced plans Tuesday to expand their trade of weapons.

More ominously, Russian officials said that Monday night’s aviation mission was merely the first sortie in a much broader operation that is expected to last through the end of the year.

Analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have found a host of reasons to work together militarily. But the foundation of the alliance, they argue, is a common rival in Washington.

“What we’re seeing is a deepening of the Russia-China military relationship in parts of the world and in ways that five years ago would’ve been almost inconceivable,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “At the most basic level, these are countries that may not have mutual sympathies but they have shared antipathies — and that’s us. And you want to kind of keep your back covered.”

China’s message to Russia, said Mr. Cheng, is: “We’ll face to the east, and you face to the west, and we’ll keep our border situation mostly stable.”

Growing bond

Under President Trump, the Pentagon consistently has warned of China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific. It also has made Russia’s destabilization efforts — including its actions in Ukraine, its cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, and testing of NATO air defenses — a top priority.

To counter the growing bond, the Trump administration has ramped up its own military presence in the South China Sea as a show of force to Beijing, and the administration last year imposed sanctions on China for buying Russian aircraft. In addition, the U.S. has pushed back on Russia on multiple fronts, including through economic sanctions and the sale of offensive weapons to Ukraine.

But the growing nexus of the Russian and Chinese militaries presents unique challenges, and it’s not entirely clear whether the U.S. has a firm long-term strategy to counter it.

At the highest levels, the two countries make no secret of their admiration for each other.

“In the past six years, we have met nearly 30 times. Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President [Vladimir] Putin is my best friend and colleague,” Mr. Xi said during a visit to Moscow in June.

Compounding the challenge for the U.S. is the growing power of China’s defense industry. For the first time in nearly two decades, Chinese defense firms are among the biggest in the world, according to an analysis by Defense News and the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, which ranked the top 100 global defense contractors based on revenue and other factors.

Six Chinese firms are now in the top 15, up from zero in the previous survey. The top Chinese company, Aviation Industry Corp. of China, even ranked ahead of Western powerhouses such as U.S.-based General Dynamics and Britain’s BAE Systems.

Russia’s Almaz-Antey came in at No. 15 — the nation’s only entry in the top 20.

With the U.S. sanctioning Russia and engaged in a fierce trade war with China, Washington has been seemingly unable to dent the growing nexus between the two nations. Just this year, Russia sold 24 Sukhoi Su-35 combat aircraft to China for $2.5 billion, according to The Moscow Times. The nations say such sales will only grow.

As arms sales increase, the countries also have steadily ramped up joint exercises. They held joint naval drills in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 and have staged a host of other joint military exercises since then.

Military analysts say the relationship reached new heights last fall with the Vostok-2018 exercise, which Mr. Putin characterized as the largest Russian military drill since the fall of the Soviet Union. More than 300,000 Russian troops and at least 3,500 Chinese forces participated.

Until now, however, the two nations largely have avoided long-range joint air drills.

Conflicting accounts

South Korean officials said the Russian aircraft stayed in South Korean airspace for 93 minutes and Chinese planes remained for 85 minutes.

“More analysis is needed for their joint flight, which is quite unusual, as well as their intentions and other details,” Yonhap News Agency quoted an unidentified South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff official as saying.

Both Russia and China vehemently deny entering South Korean skies. The Russian Defense Ministry said the joint flights were conducted “strictly in accordance with international law.”

Russian officials even denied that warning shots were fired.

“If the Russian pilots had identified such a threat to themselves, they would have immediately given an appropriate response,” said Lt. Gen. Sergei Kobylash, commander of Russia’s long-range aviation, as quoted by Russian news outlets.

Further complicating matters, analysts say, is an ongoing dispute between South Korea and Japan, two key U.S. allies. Seoul says the Russian and Chinese planes flew over two small islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan.

Japan, which also reportedly scrambled fighter jets as the crisis unfolded, later protested that South Korea had fired warning shots through its airspace.

Chinese officials seemed to reference the dispute between the two nations and said the ownership of airspace in the region is in dispute.

“We are not clear about the situation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, adding that China and South Korea are “friendly neighbors.”

Soothing tensions between Japan and South Korea is a top priority for Washington. White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton was in Tokyo this week and was expected to discuss disputes between the two countries during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Fixing the relationship, analysts say, is about more than the U.S. simply mediating a dispute between two allies. An ironclad Japan-South Korea alliance, they say, will be crucial if China and Russia continue advancing their powerful partnership in the region.

“We need to take down the temperature between the Japanese and the South Koreans. That has to be the first step,” said Mr. Cheng, the Heritage Foundation scholar. “If they’re at each other’s throats, we’ve got problems.”

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide