GP Insights # 112, 27 July 2019
On 23 July 2019, Russia and China carried out their first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia Pacific region. The patrol was reportedly carried out to project deepening relations between the two and their armed forces to facilitate and perfect possible joint actions in the future.
The exercise sparked controversy when a patrol plane violated the airspace over the disputed Dokdo islands between Japan and South Korea. As a response to this violation, the South Korean forces fired hundreds of warning shots while Japan came up with harsh protest.
What is the background?
At America’s expense, Russia and China have come to give increasing importance to their joint military actions and exercises in the recent past. In September 2018, the duo conducted a massive military exercise which was advertised as the biggest war games for decades close to Siberia. Known as Vostok-2018, the joint operation featured 300,000 Russian troops, 1,000 aircraft, 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles from Russia alongside 3,200 Chinese troops, 900 tanks and armoured vehicles, as well as troops from Mongolia. Vostok-2018 was intended to project to show the strength of an upcoming Russia-China rapprochement in the Asia-Pacific region.
Although troops and naval ships from Russia and China have taken part in combined exercises before, the recent joint air patrol was the first of its kind so far.
What does it mean?
Both Russia and China have denied protests and responses over the alleged airspace violation. However, the action could mean that the duo was deliberately trying to provoke Washington's two key allies. This could have been in order to project their dominance in the region.
Second, the Joint patrol and the subsequent violation shows a direct challenge to the idea of an Indo-Pacific and their larger hostility to democratic institutional frameworks which are propagating the idea.
Third, Washington has repeatedly remained hostile over the concerns expressed by China and Russia over the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems that include long-range radars on the Korean Peninsula which posed a direct threat to their security. While, the combined exercise signals that the two countries are moving towards a political convergence, the choice of conducting their air patrol close to disputed territory and the Korean peninsula at large might be read as a strong message to the US.
Finally, the latest reports of apology from Russia to South Korea over the violation further shows that the entire incident was forged in order to send a direct strategic signal to the US and never intended to create a rift with South Korea or Japan