Russia carried out what it said was its first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific region with China on Tuesday, a mission that triggered hundreds of warning shots, according to South Korean officials, and a strong protest from Japan.
The flight by two Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers and two Chinese H-6 bombers, backed up by a Russian A-50 early warning plane and its Chinese counterpart, a KJ-2000, marks a notable ramping-up of military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow.
That is something likely to worry politicians from Washington to Tokyo and could complicate relations and raise tension in a region that has for years been overshadowed by hostility between the United States and North Korea.
While troops and naval ships from Russia and China have taken part in joint war games before, they have not, according to Russia’s Ministry of Defence, conducted such air patrols in the Asia-Pacific region together until Tuesday.
“The joint patrol was carried out with the aim of deepening Russian-Chinese relations within our all-encompassing partnership, of further increasing cooperation between our armed forces, and of perfecting their capabilities to carry out joint actions, and of strengthening global strategic security,” the ministry said in a statement.
Seoul and Tokyo, who both scrambled jets to intercept the Russo-Chinese mission, accused Russia and China of violating their airspaces, an allegation Moscow and Beijing denied.
South Korean warplanes fired hundreds of warning shots toward the Russian A-50 military aircraft, defense officials in Seoul said, saying it was the first time a Russian military aircraft had violated South Korean airspace.
Moscow denied all of those assertions.
In Washington, the Pentagon said it supported South Korea and Japan’s responses.
“The United States strongly supports our ROK and Japanese allies and their responses to air space incursions by Chinese and Russian aircraft,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said.
“The (Defense Department) is in close coordination with our ROK and Japanese allies about these events, and will continue to monitor activities as they follow up with their Russian and Chinese counterparts in diplomatic channels,” Eastburn said.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former colonel in the Russian army, predicted Russian-Chinese joint air patrols would soon be common in the region.
“Such patrols will become a regular feature under a new agreement soon to be signed between Moscow and Beijing,” Trenin said on Twitter. “Russo-Chinese entente grows thicker.” ….