The Chinese Ministry of National Defense published a white paper yesterday, July 24, entitled “China’s National Defense in a New Era.” The document accuses the United States of pursuing “unilateral policies,” provoking “intensified competition among major countries,” increasing defense spending, developing destabilizing weapons, and undermining “global strategic stability.” While restating Beijing’s standing policy of not entering into military alliances with anyone, the white paper nonetheless praises the continued development of a “high level” military relationship with Russia that is “enriching the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and playing a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability.” The Chinese and Russian militaries have established “sound” lines of defense liaison “at all levels,” are expanding high-level exchanges, and coordinating military training and maneuvers, the document declares (Xinhuanet, July 24).
The distilled message of the Chinese defense ministry white paper is that the US is malevolent and undermining global strategic stability, while China and Russia are working together to keep the world safe. That thesis could easily be embraced by the Russian military top brass, which specifically perceives the United States as Russia’s main global adversary.
As the above-mentioned white paper was being publicly presented in Beijing, news emerged confirming that China and Russia had carried out their first joint air patrol a day earlier. Chinese defense ministry spokesperson Wu Qian stated, “The joint patrol aircraft did not violate international rules, and their objective was to increase the level of strategic cooperation between the armed forces and take joint action to maintain global strategic stability” (Militarynews.ru, July 24).
In the early morning of July 23, two People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Xian H-6K bombers approached the Korean Peninsula from the Yellow Sea. They were accompanied by a Chinese KJ-2000 airborne early warning and control (AWACS) plane, built using a Russian IL-76 airframe. The three aircraft entered the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ), first established in 1951 and expanded in 2013. At that point, two Russian strategic Tu-95MS Bear bombers also flew into the KADIZ from the Sea of Japan. The South Korean authorities require foreign jets to identify themselves when entering the KADIZ, but Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) and PLAAF aircraft routinely ignore this requirement because the KADIZ exceeds Korean sovereign airspace. The VKS and PLAAF airframes subsequently came together into a joint formation to patrol in the Sea of Japan and later flew between Japan and Korea south to Okinawa. The Chinese H-6K eventually turned west and returned home. The Russian Tu-95MSs, meanwhile, continued further south and east—to a position from which they could theoretically launch long-range Kh-55 cruise missiles at Guam—before turning back home (Kommersant, July 24).
According to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), KADIZ violations happen regularly (Chinese military aircraft have entered the KADIZ 25 times and Russian airplanes 13 times since the start of 2019), but the event on July 23 was special: PLAAF and VKS heavy bombers, potentially armed with nuclear-tipped long-range cruise missiles, come together within the KADIZ without any prior warning of their intension. The H-6K and Tu-95MS are not patrol aircraft per se, but nuclear-capable bombers. The JCS scrambled jet fighters in response. But at 9:09 a.m. local time, a Russian A-50U AWACS plane (also built using the IL-76 airframe) entered the KADIZ. Then, according to the JCS, for a brief three minutes it penetrated national Korean airspace over several small islets (the Liancourt Rocks) controlled by South Korea and disputed by Japan. South Korean F-15K and KF-16 jets were already in the air and responded immediately by firing warning shots and flares. The A-50 did not react and, some minutes later, according to the JCS, again entered Korean sovereign airspace, this time for 4 minutes, instigating another burst of Korean fire and flares—some 360 rounds and 20 flares in all. By 9:56 a.m., the Russian A-50 finally left the KADIZ and apparently flew home over the Sea of Japan. The commander of Russia’s Long-Range (strategic) Aviation, Lieutenant General Sergei Kobylash, later told journalists that there was no airspace violation and that Russia does not recognize the KADIZ. South Korean jets had fired flares and unsuccessfully tried to obstruct the joint patrol, Kobylash continued, but he denied that any warning shots were fired: “If our pilots had reported such a danger, the response would have been immediate and adequate” (Interfax, July 23).
Hypothetically, Russia could have called in fighter jet support, which easily might have spiraled into a nasty armed confrontation or even further escalation. But the Korean jets were apparently not firing directly at the A-50. Flying at a high altitude in the bright glint of the morning sun, the A-50 crew might simply not have even noticed the shots being fired at a distance and in a different direction. Luck seems to have prevailed: The regional Russian military command did not call for fighter support without properly consulting top political/military leadership in Moscow (where it was 3 or 4 a.m. as the live fire event proceeded). The Russian A-50 fleet is based in Ivanovo-Severnoye airbase, belonging to the Transport Air Command (VTA), in European Russia. Its crews tend to be less experienced in flying long range over international waters. Indeed, the A-50 crew might have briefly entered Korean airspace unintentionally. Reportedly, on July 24, the A-50 involved was sitting on an airfield in Vladivostok, suggesting that some kind of investigation was underway (Primamedia.ru, July 24).
The Russian military’s kneejerk reaction is to adamantly reject any foreign accusation of wrongdoing, no matter what the arguments are. But Moscow has for years been trying to build good relations with Seoul; a serious rift could undermine strategically important business projects like the refurbishing of the former Zvezda military shipyard in the Russian Far East into a civilian super-large yard. Once restructured, the facility will be granted a monopoly on building floating natural gas and oil drilling platforms, tankers, and even nuclear icebreakers for the Russian Arctic. Korean technologies and help are essential to the future commercial success of the Zvezda shipyard, which is a pet project of powerful Kremlin insider and CEO of Rosneft, Igor Sechin (Kommersant, February 12). Moscow will try to end the crisis with Seoul as quickly and quietly as possible, while vehemently refusing to acknowledge any guilt or wrongdoing. But that consideration will inevitably bump up against demands by the Russian political-military command to restart the strategically important joint bomber patrols with the PLAAF soon as possible.