Chinese reconnaissance plane flies over South Korea, Japan as geopolitical tensions grow

  • Seoul, Tokyo scramble fighter jets after PLA aircraft spotted in air defence identification zones
  • Beijing likely to increase its monitoring of American allies in region as risk to national security increases, analyst says
PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 8:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 5:12am

Japan and South Korea scrambled fighter jets to track a Chinese military aircraft that flew close to their airspace on Thursday in what appeared to be the latest move by Beijing to increase its surveillance of the two US allies.

The People’s Liberation Army plane, believed to be a Y-9 type reconnaissance aircraft, entered South Korea’s air defence identification zone on three separate occasions during the day, without providing any notice of its intent, the Yonhap news agency reported.

An official from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff was quoted as saying that the plane first flew into the zone from an area close to Jeju and Ieo islands at 10:21am and stayed for about an hour. The subsequent visits came at 11:54am and 2:14pm, it said, adding that Chinese military aircraft had been spotted in the zone eight times since the start of the year.

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Fighter jets were scrambled to track the Chinese plane, which was also issued a warning message, Yonhap said, adding that the defence ministry in Seoul later summoned the military attaché from the Chinese embassy.

Also on Thursday, Japan’s defence ministry said that fighter jets were deployed to monitor a Chinese Y-9 aircraft as it flew over the Sea of Japan from the Korea Strait. Tokyo did not elaborate on the incident.

Yue Gang, a retired PLA colonel and military commentator in Beijing, said the reconnaissance flights were most likely intended to give Beijing a better understanding of military activity in the region, after the US recently flew B-52 bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons over the South and East China seas.

“Such flights will become routine as China needs to clearly understand the military threats on our doorstep,” he said, in reference to Seoul’s decision in 2016 to deploy a US-backed anti-missile system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), which Beijing regards as a threat to its national security.

The system, which is sited on a former golf course about 200km (125 miles) south of Seoul, sparked a year-long diplomatic stand-off between the two nations, which came to an end only in December last year when Seoul promised it would not deploy any additional THAAD batteries.

“THAAD’s powerful radar could probe Chinese territory as far as central China and Xian [in the northwest], and these are all key areas for national security,” Yue said.

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As for the PLA flight into Japan’s air defence identification zone, Yue said it might have been linked to Tokyo’s recent decision to host two US-built Aegis Ashore land-based missile interceptor systems, a concern for Beijing.

“[Such flights] will become routine and possibly more frequent in the future as such practice is allowed under international law and as long as military assets are threating China,” he said.

Air defence identification zones comprise airspace over land or water in which the identification, location and control of aircraft is performed in the interests of national security. The concept, however, is not defined in any international treaty or regulated by any international body.