Questions are swirling around whether China, Russia and North Korea coordinated their acts of provocation around South Korea earlier this week. Image: Getty / Twitter / Newsweek

SEOUL – Russian and Chinese warplanes buzzed South Korea on Tuesday (May 24) evening, then this morning (May 25) North Korea test-fired three ballistic missiles.

The incidents will have Japanese, South Korean and US defense planners knotting their brows for this convergence of events has an unmistakable precedent: The sequence of events exactly mirror a series of joint Chinese and Russian flypasts that preceded a North Korean ICBM test on March 24.

While huge questions hang over coordination between Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang – or lack thereof, given that no official security architecture links the three nations – the timing of the events looks far from coincidental.

On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden was in Japan, winding up the first Asia trip of his presidency following three days in South Korea.

In Japan, Biden unveiled the new, US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, summited with leaders of the Quad security dialog bloc and in a shock announcement stated that the US would defend Taiwan militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion.

Though White House handlers talked back the statement, a person familiar with military affairs told Asia Times that Biden is seeking to signal to Beijing that the US would not take the same hands-off approach to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan that it has taken in Ukraine.

Prior to Russia’s February 24 invasion, Washington and London, the source stated, had revealed that they would not fight for Ukraine, which may have influenced Russian decision-making.

Biden may thus be seeking to dissuade Beijing from any military adventurism around Taiwan by signaling less “strategic ambiguity” and more “strategic clarity.” He is certainly working to rally democratic allies against Russia while strengthening security ties in the Indo-Pacific.

But these various moves may be generating unintended pushback as Asian powers aligned against the US look to be upgrading their own military coordination.

Asked about the possible emergence of two opposed trilateral security groupings in the region, Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, said he did not know if that shift was underway but acknowledged the risks that configuration would present.

“That is a scary question – South Korea, the US and Japan versus China Russia and North Korea,” Chun told Asia Times. “This is a bad omen”

Chinese troops under a Russian flag in a file photo. Image: RT

According to South Korea’s Joint Chief of Staff, at 7:56 AM on May 24 two Chinese H-6 bombers entered the South Korean Air Defense Identification Zone, or KADIZ, from northwest of Ieodo, a submerged rock south of the Korean island of Jeju. It then exited the zone at around 9:33 AM.

The ownership of the reef is disputed between China and Korea, and Seoul maintains a naval base on Jeju, a popular holiday destination. Korea scrambled its own warplanes to monitor the sortie.

Later, the two Chinese warplanes joined four Russian warplanes, including two TU-95 bombers and entered the KADIZ together at 9:58 AM. They then left the zone at 10:15 AM.

Though Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi expressed “grave concern” over the flights, which traversed part of the Sea of Japan, the news generated only mild interest.

An ADIZ is a unilaterally drawn geometry with no force in international law. Neither South Korea’s nor Japan’s sovereign air space – i.e. the space above its territory, extending 12 nautical miles outward from its coastline – was penetrated.

But regional defense chiefs were on alert again this morning when North Korea test-fired three ballistic missiles, including a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The missiles were fired from Sunan, close to Pyongyang and the site of the capital’s international airport, between 6:00 AM and 6:42 AM.

This morning’s test firings took place just hours after Biden had left Tokyo on Tuesday evening. In a typical response, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs called the launches “a serious provocative act.”

The source familiar with military affairs – who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity as he did not have clearance to speak to media – was confident that the Chinese and Russian drills were coordinated but doubted North Korea had joined the huddle.

Yet this morning’s and yesterday’s events exactly mirror – in terms of the parties involved; the incidents themselves; and the sequencing – Chinese, Russian and North Korean actions two months ago in March.

On March 23, Chinese warplanes flew through the KADIZ. Russian warplanes flew through the KADIZ the following day, March 24 – exactly one month after the invasion of Ukraine.

Also on March 24, hours after the Russian jet sorties fly-by, North Korea tested-fired an ICBM, marking its first test of such a long-range weapon since 2017.

This screen-grab image taken from North Korean broadcaster KCTV in 2019 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching the launch of a ballistic missile at an unknown location. Photo: AFP / KCTV

The near-identical patterns of March 23/24, and May 24/25, could simply be a coincidence. After all, North Korea has conducted 19 missile tests this year while China and Russia have staged multiple flights in the air space around the flashpoint peninsula.  

A spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul confirmed to Asia Times that there had been a similar flypast by Chinese and Russian warplanes in January but did not have wider data on the number of incidents, nor did he confirm the date.

North Korea conducted six missile tests that month. Earlier sorties by Russian and Chinese planes took place on November 11, 2021. There were no North Korean missile tests that month.

As Washington extends its web of regional defense networks – from its bilateral defense treaties with Australia, Japan and South Korea to the more recent Quad and AUKUS multilaterals – regional competitors appear to be closing ranks.

While China and Russia have strong defense ties and share similar doctrines and kit, they are not linked by any formal treaty. They have, however, been conducting an increasing range of joint drills since the giant Vostok 2018 military drills in the Russian Far East. Their ongoing joint exercises include both aerial and naval components.

Moreover, in February, three weeks before the assault upon Ukraine, Beijing and Moscow announced an “Unlimited Partnership” that was strongly defined by security issues: Both supported each other’s positions on Taiwan and NATO expansionism, and critiqued AUKUS.

Independently-minded North Korea operated closely with both the USSR and China during the Korean War but, though it shares Beijing and Moscow’s anti-US posture, has sought strategic independence in the decades since.

“The Chinese and the Russians are not very fond of the North Korean nuclear missile program,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korean who teaches at Seoul’s Kookmin University: Neither county, after all, favors events that compel the US to upgrade military activities in the region.

Even so, China and North Korea maintain a mutual treaty that dates back to the post-Korean War era. Neither country has any such treaty with another nation. And recent events suggest North Korea may be betting into bed with China and Russia once more.

A US Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber flying over South Korea with US and South Korean fighter jets during a joint military drill. Photo: South Korean Defense Ministry via AFP

In January, China and Russia stymied US moves in the UN Security Council to add further sanctions on North Korea. And China and North Korea have both refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or join Western sanctions on Moscow.

But how far the three nations are on the same page as regards their ongoing military moves is a mystery.

“The Chinese and Russians did a joint press conference about joint tabletop exercises in 2018, and the question about the third triangulation point, North Korea, is a very interesting one,” said Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based security consultant. “It is difficult to corroborate conjecture but the timing [of the sorties and launches] is interesting and it has happened twice.”

Lankov wondered if the change global situation since the invasion of Ukraine was influencing matters. “Before February 24, I would have smiled at this,” Lankov said, referring to trilateral security moves. “But now, I am not so sure.”

A fog of opacity around a possible emerging anti-US axis is – naturally – in place.

“The Chinese have unofficially denied any coordination with the North Koreans,” said Chun. “But there was definite coordination between the Chinese and Russians, and it would make sense that the Chinese and the Russians would have notified the North Koreans [of their aerial drills] – and a notification is, itself, coordination.”

These matters will not go unnoticed by generals and admirals. “Anyone on the security side has to think of worst-case scenarios,” Chun said.

Follow this writer on Twitter at @ASalmonSeoul