The East Sea has long been both an important strategic zone for U.S. partners as well as a hotbed of territorial disputes. Recently, Russia has become an active player in the region, raising tensions and sparking questions about the durability of U.S. alliances and the balance of power in the Pacific.
Early on Tuesday, Russia and China undertook their first joint long-range air patrol of the Asia-Pacific. The flight involved two Russian Tu-95 bombers and an A-50 early warning plane, paired with two Chinese H-6 bombers and a KJ-2000 early warning aircraft. In response, South Korea and Japan scrambled eighteen jet fighters and fired 360 warning shots. Officials from both Seoul and Japan claimed that the aircraft violated their airspace; Moscow and Beijing denied these allegations.
The planes flew over the Liancourt Rocks, an area claimed by both the South Koreans (who call it Dokdo) and the Japanese (who call it Takeshima). The tiny rocky islands have become symbolic in the maritime disputes that have plagued the region for centuries. The history of the conflict over the Liancourt Rocks is complicated, stretching back to 1696. According to South Korea, the end of World War II restored the islands to their control, but Japan still maintains its claim to the land.
Most recently, the conflict bubbled over during the 2018 Winter Olympics when the unified Korean flag depicted the disputed islands. This symbolic claim to ownership on the world stage sparked outrage from Japan, prompting the government to file official protests.
Russia-China Military Partnership
Both Moscow and Beijing deny allegations that the patrol targeted any particular nation. Rather, their statements in response to the confrontation present the exercise as a step to increase bilateral military cooperation. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the patrol was meant to support “deepening Russian-Chinese relations… increasing cooperation between our armed forces… [and] strengthening global strategic security.”
Russian and Chinese troops have previously participated in joint war games (most recently in 2017), but this week’s joint patrol marks a significant step in military cooperation between the two countries. No formal military alliance yet exists, but they are clearly developing a de facto partnership by sharing equipment and techniques and conducting joint exercises, such as the patrol.
Both countries have motivation for closer military cooperation: their common hostility towards the West. For China, Russian partnership offers a way to back up its promise of rising military strength. In China’s first defense white paper since 2015, released this Wednesday, Beijing emphasized how “enriching the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership” is key to “maintaining global strategic stability,” and thus central to its long-term plans. The paper discussed challenges both domestically (such as the Hong Kong protests and growing separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang) and internationally. On the global level, China’s new defense strategy focuses on resisting what it sees as American attempts to prevent China’s development into a global military power.
For Russia, collaboration with China helps bolster its attempts to display revived military might and readiness for full-scale war. Russia’s September 2017 war game “Zapad” (translating literally to “West”) sounded alarm bells for NATO members. One of the biggest Russian military exercises since the end of the Cold war, Zapad 2017 involved 900 tanks and 300,000 soldiers. Thousands of Chinese and Mongolian troops were also involved, revealing the strategic role of Beijing in the Russian military build-up. In light of pressure from Western sanctions as well as continuing conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin sees a show of military strength as a way of forcing the international conversation back onto Russian terms.
Implications for the U.S.
Russia’s overall strategy in countering U.S. power is to spread divisions within our alliances. In the Pacific, it is clear that the Kremlin is targeting the relationship between our two most prominent allies, South Korea and Japan, by provoking long-standing tensions. The territorial disputes over the Liancourt Rocks will likely continue as a source of serious conflict, and if the U.S. hopes to maintain its alliances, a resolution must be pursued. Yet this is unlikely, especially as the U.S. has not ratified the UN’s Law of the Sea, which offers guidelines for resolution of maritime disputes.
The growing partnership with China offers Russia a way to project power and influence further into the Asia-Pacific region. A military alliance would complement continuous efforts at economic diplomacy (epitomized by Putin’s annual forum). As U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan struggle to contend with the divisive territorial disputes, a strengthening Sino-Russian bloc threatens to disrupt U.S. influence in its most important theater: the Pacific.