South Korea jets fire shots at Russian military aircraft over Sea of Japan

Seoul reacts after Russian and Chinese bombers carry out joint long-range air patrol

A Chinese Xian H-6 jet bomber allegedly attempting to violate Japanese air space on Tuesday. Photograph: EPA/Japanese defence ministry

A Chinese Xian H-6 jet bomber allegedly attempting to violate Japanese air space on Tuesday. Photograph: EPA/Japanese defence ministry

 

Russian and Chinese bombers have carried out the countries’ first joint long-range air patrol in Asia, spooking regional rivals and drawing warning shots from South Korean fighter jets.

Fighters scrambled by Seoul on Tuesday fired about 360 warning shots at a Russian surveillance aircraft accompanying the bombers after what South Korean officials described as an “unprecedented” violation of the country’s airspace above the Sea of Japan.

The joint exercise, which Moscow said was the first time it had partnered with Beijing to conduct a long-range patrol in the region, marks a significant step in the burgeoning military relationship between Russia and China, which has intensified in recent years as Moscow’s relationship with the west has soured, and saw Chinese troops take part in huge joint war games in Russia last year.

“We are taking the incident very seriously. If such an act is repeated, [South Korea] will take a far stronger measure,” said Chung Eui-yong, director of national security at the presidential office in Seoul.

The two Russian Tu-95MS bombers, accompanied by two Chinese H-6s, flew 9,000km in 11 hours together in an exercise that Moscow said was “not aimed against any third countries”, but will increase worries over military tensions in the region.

Russia denied the two bombers had violated a South Korean air defence identification zone but made no mention of the A-50 surveillance aircraft. Russia said it did not recognise the country’s claim over the territory where the incident took place near the disputed Dokdo islands and accused South Korean fighter jets of “creating a threat” to the Russian planes.

“It was not the first time that South Korean pilots tried unsuccessfully to prevent Russian aircraft from flying over the neutral waters of the Sea of Japan,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.

Sergei Kobylash, commander of Russia’s long-range aviation forces, said: “The South Korean aircraft crews acted in an unprofessional manner. They performed dangerous manoeuvres near the disputed islands, crossing the course of the air task force and posing a flight security threat.”

Show of force

South Korea’s defence ministry said the surveillance aircraft, an A-50, twice flew into South Korean airspace off its east coast. The incidents occurred after the four bombers entered South Korea’s air defence identification zone, officials in Seoul said.

“It is yet another indication of Russia’s growing military activity in the Asia-Pacific,” said Alexey D Muraviev, associate professor of national security and strategic studies at Curtin University in Australia.

Mr Muraviev noted Russia had made similar moves “harassing” Japan, as part of a broader effort by Moscow to test the response and defence capabilities of the US allies.

In a show of force, Russia has in recent years stepped up its use of long-range strategic bomber flights in the region, as well as across the Baltic and Black Seas, the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

The Dokdo area, which is controlled by Seoul but also claimed by Japan, has been used in South Korean military war games as recently as 2018, raising tension over competing territorial claims.

Jina Kim, a Seoul-based military expert at the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses, said while there had been previous instances of joint Russian and Chinese activities, Moscow’s increased activity was a “grave concern” for Seoul. It also highlighted problems stemming from South Korea, Japan and China having overlapping air defence identification zones.

“This is a critical issue between the neighbouring countries. There hasn’t been sufficient discussions about how to prevent these kinds of events from taking place,” she said.

The incident comes against a backdrop of heightened tension between Japan and South Korea over Seoul’s demands for forced labour compensation from Tokyo. The dispute, which dates back to Japan’s wartime colonial rule of Korea, has led to a deterioration in relations, raising questions over the sharing of security information between the US allies.

“Perhaps the Chinese or Russians wanted to see if there is any co-ordinated response from Seoul and Tokyo against these kinds of events today,” Ms Kim said.

Officials in Seoul planned to lodge protests with representatives from China and Russia. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019