Russia, China test Korea and its allianceTo figure out the motive behind the Russian warplane’s double violation of Korea’s sovereign airspace on Tuesday, local pundits are zeroing in on a particular piece of territory it flew by: Dokdo, the disputed set of islets in the East Sea, which Korea administers but Japan claims.
The territorial dispute over Dokdo is one of the main historical issues dividing the neighboring countries of Korea and Japan, alongside Korean women forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II and Korean laborers who were forced to toil in Japanese factories at the same time.
Both countries go back centuries for evidence to back their claims over Dokdo, which Japan calls Takeshima, and the territorial issue is rarely off the boil.
Then came Tuesday.
Amid a downward spiral of Seoul-Tokyo relations, a Russian A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft violated the part of Korea’s national airspace over Dokdo from 9:09 a.m. to 9:12 a.m., reaching as close as 12.9 kilometers (8 miles) from the east side of Dokdo. In response, Korean fighter jets released a barrage of flares and warning shots.
The Russian plane left Korean airspace but entered again coming from the opposite direction from 9:33 a.m. to 9:37 p.m., getting as close as 15.7 kilometers west of Dokdo.
Russia wasn’t alone.
The Russian aircraft violated Korea’s airspace during a combined aerial operation with China. Earlier Tuesday morning, two Chinese H-6 jet bombers and two Russian TU-95 strategic bombers entered the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (Kadiz) multiple times without giving any prior notice to Korea, local military officials said.
Later, Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that the flights were part of its first combined long-range air patrol with China in the Asia-Pacific region, adding it wasn’t aimed at any third country.
“Russia and China chose to carry out a combined operation in the skies above the East Sea at this time,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, “because Korea-Japan relations are at a low, and due to this, they assumed Korea, Japan and the United States wouldn’t be able to use their trilateral military cooperation to take any countermeasures.”
Jeon Seong-hun, former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, agrees.
“Japan claims sovereignty over Dokdo, so even if Russia violates Korea’s airspace [over the islets], Japan won’t side with Korea,” Jeon said. “Amid souring ties between Seoul and Tokyo, Moscow made a very calculated and strategic provocation by testing that weakened bond.”
Cha Du-hyeogn, a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that Russia’s violation of Korean airspace was meant to test Korea, Japan and the United States to see how they would react, and also to gauge the possibility of Korea leaving that trilateral security cooperation group.
A statement from a high-level Korean official last week that “all options” are open on the fate of Korea’s bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan, a military intelligence-sharing agreement, could have induced Russia and China into believing now was a good time to provoke the trilateral alliance, Cha continued.
Without specifying the incident, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who landed in Seoul hours after the Russian air infiltration on Tuesday for a two-day visit, wrote on Twitter: “Wonderful to be back in Seoul so soon and looking forward to productive meetings with the leadership of our important ally and partner so vital to Indo-Pacific security and prosperity.”
Shin from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies noted that Russia and China both have ambitions to expand their clout in the Indo-Pacific region, but are blocked by the naval forces of Japan and the United States. That’s why they chose to test the weakest country in the region, Shin said: Korea.
If Russia’s airspace violation proved anything, experts say, it’s that flying near Dokdo can indeed make Korea-Japan ties even worse.
“It is Japan that should take action against the Russian plane that entered its airspace,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tuesday, according to Japan’s Kyodo News. “It is incompatible with Japan’s stance that South Korea takes steps on that.”
The Kyodo report continued that Japan lodged a protest with both Korea and Russia, and that its Air Self-Defense Force scrambled fighter jets to waters near Dokdo in response to the A-50’s intrusion Tuesday morning, though it appeared not to have fired like the Korean Air Force.
Korea has placed security personnel on Dokdo since 1954, effectively controlling the islets. Both Korea and Japan claim ownership of the islets, but because they are controlled by Korea, only Korea’s air defense identification zone covers the area.
BY LEE CHUL-JAE, LEE YU-JEONG AND YOO JEE-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]