Diplomatic friction between great powers damages not just themselves, but their neighbors and allies. This week – and not for the first time – a great-power struggle affected a country that played no direct role in it, namely South Korea.
On Tuesday morning, four military planes from China and Russia allegedly entered the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ). South Korea claims that so far this year, Chinese military planes have entered its territorial airspace 25 times, and Russian warplanes 13 times.
The South Korean ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs called the Chinese ambassador and the Russian acting ambassador on Tuesday afternoon to protest. Though Russia has apologized for the latest incursion – over the disputed Dokdo islands – it also explained that it had occurred during the course of China-Russia joint air patrol and suggested it was accidental.
What is unique about this case is that four of the military planes that allegedly entered the KADIZ were strategic bombers. In the opinion of defense experts, the two Russian Tu-95 planes and the two Chinese H-6 aircraft were capable of carrying nuclear weapons, so the Korean government had no choice but to be angry.
Another Russian plane, a Beriev A-50, which entered the airspace of the Dokdo islands, has an early-warning role that mainly monitors an enemy’s position.
“The Russian Defense Ministry has announced that it will take immediate action to take all necessary measures,” Yoon Do Han, senior secretary to the president for public communication, said in a briefing at the Blue House. Yoon said the Russian Ministry of Defense said a malfunction aboard one of its planes was the main reason it intruded into Korea’s territorial airspace, adding that its flight was planned in advance for a joint air patrol with China. “The Russian Defense Ministry clarified that t would not have happened if it was the first planned route,” Yoon said.
China and Russia began joint training with strategic bombers just after South Korea decided to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a US missile defense system, in 2016. In the meantime, China and Russia are joining forces in correspondence with the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, as China and Russia have begun military exercises in the vicinity of the Dokdo islands, where frequent confrontations take place between South Korea and Japan (which also claims the islands, which it calls Takeshima), they have become a place where multinational forces are in play. It seems that new geopolitical and security conflicts between the great powers in Northeast Asia have begun.
The geopolitical position of Korea has historically made it the site of fighting between nations to control Northeast Asia. Once South and North Korea are unified, China and Russia will be able to enjoy tremendous economic benefits, and Japan will fall behind in the competition for leadership in Northeast Asia. Conversely, if South Korea enters a military conflict with the North, conservative politicians in Japan will be able to win elections every time by emphasizing North Korea issues.
The fact that several things happened in South Korea’s airspace on Tuesday, the same day US national security adviser John Bolton visited the country, is open to many interpretations. South Korea should carefully investigate and actively deal with the Russian and Chinese actions. The long-standing conflict between the United States and Russia, the trade war between the United States and China, and the denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea now thrust South Korea into a role as mediator, even if it does not want to. It is time to demonstrate the influence of South Korea as a peacemaker, not as a weak country that is always affected by the struggles between great powers.