The Twilight War that Never Happened
China and Russia’s joint air operation over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands was provocative towards both American allies and the United States directly. Because of this, the United States military and political leadership should have publicly denounced Chinese and Russian actions while affirming their commitment towards allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
China and Russia have been developing their joint military operations for over a decade, both to complement their leaders’ personal affinities as well as to signal the growing alignment of the two nations. Early in the morning on July 23rd, 2019, Russia and China carried out their first joint air patrol of the Asia-Pacific. During this exercise, a Russian A-50 observation plane, two Russian Tu-95 bombers, a Chinese KJ-2000 observation plane, and two Chinese H-6 bombers flew into South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands. If aircraft enters a country’s ADIZ, the nation has the legal standing to request identification and purpose of the flight, but South Korea claims that the Russian and Chinese aircraft did not answer their repeated radio warnings. In the twenty-three minutes that the Chinese and Russian aircraft stayed within South Korea’s airspace, the Republic of Korea’s fighter jets fired twenty flares and three-hundred-and-sixty gun rounds as warning shots. Russia’s defense ministry publicly stated that no shots were fired, and it was the South Korean fighter pilots who were unprofessional by crossing paths with their aircraft without radioing. Japan confirmed the South Korean version of events but did not approve of the warning shots that were fired, reiterating that the Dokdo/Takeshima islands are Japanese territory.
Although the four-country standoff lasted only a couple of hours in total, the situation showed the complexity and delicacy of the political balance in the Asia-Pacific. Both Japan and South Korea filed diplomatic protests over the actions of Russia and China, although neither country have officially apologized. John Bolton visited South Korea to work to strengthen trilateral security between South Korea, Japan, and the United States, as well as facilitating further bilateral talks between Japan and South Korea separately.
There are three speculations as to why China and Russia took the actions they did, rather than following conventional protocol. The first theory that has been that China and Russia were attempting to draw out South Korean and Japanese air forces in order to gather intelligence on current capabilities. Another option was that China and Russia were trying to sow discord between two major United States allies and weaken alliances between the countries. The third rationale posed was a test on United States’ defensive boundaries and hard limits, especially in relation to allies in the Asia-Pacific. It is possible that a combination, or all three, of these objectives were goals in the joint Chinese-Russian exercise.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Although the United States did comment on this incident in general terms, no specific actions were taken to reaffirm Japanese and South Korean interests, nor to reprimand Chinese and Russian forces for taking such reckless action. As pointed out by experts and officials, a lack of an adequate response to such a provocative action only further emboldens China and Russia to continue pushing boundaries in future joint exercises. Although caution in such a tense situation is understandable, the United States needs to more clearly articulate that the actions taken by China and Russia were directly challenging America allies, and as such are not being taken lightly. The United States does not want to start a war over squabbles an ocean away, but at the same time needs to make clear that encroachments and implicit threats endanger the tenuous balance built between the great powers in the region.
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