A dramatic new geopolitical template occurred in the Asia-Pacific last week when Russia’s Aerospace Force and China’s PLA Air Force carried out their first-ever joint air patrol in the region. Steadily and imperceptibly, but profoundly, regional alignments are transforming.
Russia and China routinely claim that their entente is neither a military alliance and not directed against any third country. Yet the alchemy of that relationship is undergoing a huge transformation, stemming out of a conscious decision by their top leaders.
The so-called joint patrol on July 23 involved Russia’s Tu-95MS strategic bombers and the H-6K aircraft on China’s part. The Tupolov Tu-95MS – which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization calls the “Bear” – is a large, four-engine turboprop-powered strategic bomber and missile platform to carry the new Russian Kh-101/102 stealth cruise missile, which uses radio-radar equipment and a target-acquiring navigation system based on GLONASS. The Bear used to be a veritable icon of the Cold War as it performed maritime surveillance and targeting missions for other aircraft, surface ships and submarines and a versatile bomber that would deliver the thermonuclear bomb.
China’s H-6K is a heavily redesigned version of the Bear, capable of carrying air-launched cruise missiles. According to the Pentagon, the bomber gives China a “long-range standoff offensive air capability” with precision-guided munitions. Russia and China deployed two each of the Tu-95MS and H-6K strategic bombers in the air patrol last Tuesday.
According to a Russian Defense Ministry statement, the air patrol was undertaken on the “planned route over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.” It said the joint air patrol was intended to strengthen Russian-Chinese relations and raise the level of interaction between the armed forces of both countries, in particular, to expand their capabilities for joint operations.
Significantly, the Russian statement said that another goal of the joint patrol is “strengthening global strategic stability.”
The South Korean Defense Ministry, however, insisted that following the Russian-Chinese air patrol by the strategic bombers, a Russian A-50 command and control military aircraft also entered the country’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) twice. South Korea claimed that it deployed fighter jets and fired 360 warning shots ahead of the Russian A-50 aircraft, which was an unarmed Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane, designed for tracking and observation.
Why Russia and China jointly undertook an unprecedented joint air patrol over the disputed islands in the East China Sea – known to the Koreans as Dokdo and to the Japanese as Takeshima – remains unclear.
But, quite obviously, it was an affront to the US, which has alliance treaties with both Japan and South Korea. The incident comes barely two months after the release of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which spelled out America’s dual containment strategy against China (“a Revisionist Power”) and Russia (“a Revitalized Malign Actor”).
‘Plan of cooperation’
The Chinese Defense Ministry’s official spokesman, Colonel Wu Qian, said on Wednesday: “I would like to reiterate that China and Russia are engaged in all-encompassing strategic coordination. This patrol mission was among the areas of cooperation and was carried out within the framework of the annual plan of cooperation between the defense agencies of the two states. It was not directed against any other ‘third state.’
“As far as the practice of joint strategic patrols is concerned, both sides will make a decision on the matter on the basis of bilateral consultations. Under the strategic command of the heads of states, the armed forces of the two nations will continue developing their relations. The sides will support each other, respect mutual interests and develop corresponding mechanisms of cooperation.”
Clearly, the Chinese statement has been far more assertive than the Russian statement, describing the joint patrol as part of an “all-encompassing strategic coordination” between the two countries and may continue in the future as they “support each other, respect mutual interests and develop corresponding mechanisms of cooperation.”
Moscow also says that the first-ever joint patrol of the long-range aircraft in the Pacific was the beginning of a wider program, which aims to boost the Russian and Chinese militaries’ ability to work together, and the planned program stretches at least for the remainder of the year.
Neither Russia nor China is party to the maritime dispute in the East China Sea, and when they undertook a joint patrol nonetheless, it bore an uncanny resemblance to the US exercising its “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. The US has a big military presence in the region but was rendered an ineffectual observer, unable to go to the aid of either of its allies – Japan or South Korea, which could also only protest and lament from the sidelines.
The symbolism is striking. US national security adviser John Bolton, who was on a visit to Seoul a day after the flyover of the islands by the Russian and Chinese strategic bombers, exhorted South Korea and Japan to work together amid growing security concerns.
On the other hand, the incident last Tuesday only served to highlight the conflicting claims over the islands. Eighteen South Korean jets and about 10 from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces were deployed to the area during the incident. Japan, which considers the South Korean-controlled islands as its own, maintains that Seoul should not have responded to the Russian plane. Meanwhile, a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman said on Wednesday that Japan’s views were completely irrelevant.
In fact, one viewpoint is that China and Russia took advantage of this rift to put their security partnership to the test. CNN speculated that the Russian-Chinese mission may have been designed to draw out South Korean and Japanese aircraft for intelligence-gathering purposes.
Either way, Russia and China may have underscored that in carrying forward their convergence on the Asia-Pacific region, their two militaries intend to undertake active “strategic coordination” in the Far East, where the US has begun deploying advanced missile defense capabilities.
For China, the timing is particularly significant in view of the proposed US arms sales to Taiwan.
For both Russia and China, the Far East will be of increased importance in the period ahead as forming a gateway to the Northern Sea Route, the shipping lane that the two countries are jointly developing to connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean along the Russian coast of Siberia and the Far East.