The script when warplanes from four countries recently faced off over the Sea of Japan, or East Sea, could have been taken straight out of the cold war. Two axes of power struggling for world domination seemed strangely familiar.
The incident on July 23 saw two Chinese H-6K jets thread their way through the international airspace of the Korea Strait to meet up with two Russian Tu-95MS “Bear” bombers over a group of islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan.
Both Tokyo and Seoul responded; Japan by scrambling its jets and South Korean fighters firing more than 300 warning shots at a Russian aircraft.
It is hard not to see in this clashing of top guns the existence of two rival axes of power. One of them is grouped under the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”strategy of US President Donald Trump, and includes the free democracies of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, India, and some European nations. The aim of this group is to curb China’s growing geopolitical influence.
Moscow and Beijing chose a very specific area to demonstrate their budding partnership: the airspace above a small island chain fiercely contested between South Korea and Japan.
To most observers, this suggests the exercise was also aimed at exploiting the friction between two US allies, as the joint patrol came amid a growing diplomatic and economic row between Japan and South Korea.
The group of islands are known as Dokdo (solitary islands) in Korea, and as Takeshima (bamboo islands) in Japan. Tokyo and Seoul are at odds not only over ownership of the land, but also the naming of the nearby waters, known to Koreans as the East Sea and to Japanese as the Sea of Japan.
If the aim was to stir the pot, Moscow and Beijing appear to have succeeded; Seoul and Tokyo subsequently lodged protests with each other.
This internal division between two US allies may weaken the US-led security architecture in Asia, playing straight into the hands of Moscow and Beijing. South Korea has already made it known that it may not renew an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan when it expires. Japan has tightened controls on exports of hi-tech materials to South Korea and removed it from a list of countries given preferential trade treatment.
The bickering has distracted them from shared bigger problems at hand, such as North Korea’s nuclear threat. Again, this has played into their opponents’ hands.
Beijing and Moscow fear that Washington’s plan for an American anti-missile system that would cover both Japan and South Korea – ostensibly to protect them from Pyongyang – is a concealed attempt by Washington to compromise their own land-based offensive missile capabilities.
Sowing distrust between the two US allies may go some way to compromising Washington’s plans.
Perhaps it was also no coincidence that the aerial scrap unfolded just as US National Security Adviser John Bolton was arriving in Seoul from Tokyo, in a mission to mediate between the two.
A COLD BLAST FROM THE PAST
Strategists in Beijing and Moscow may have been using the joint exercise to experiment with military tactics, particularly regarding the “first island chain”, the frontier that divided the US-led free democracies and the Soviet-China communist axis during the early days of the cold war era in the 1950s.
The “first island chain” is a geopolitical concept first mentioned by American strategist John Foster Dulles in 1951 during the Korean war. Essentially the idea was that a US-led alliance would surround the then Soviet Union and China by sea and thereby curb their expansionist ambitions in the Pacific.
The imaginary military defence line, connecting Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines, still exists today, at least in the minds of strategy planners in Washington, Tokyo, Brussels, Beijing and Moscow.
Beijing and Moscow have long seen the strong US military presence in the Asia-Pacific as thwarting the expansion of their influence in the region. They now appear to be forging an increasingly close military partnership in a bold attempt to unsettle the East Asian security framework, spurred on by their anger at Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
A Chinese defence white paper, published on July 24, welcomed the enhanced partnership with Russia as a counterbalance to the US military presence in the region – described by Beijing as a destabilising force.
A spokesman with the Chinese ministry of defence, Wu Qian, made no secret about the aims of the joint patrol, saying it was “aimed at deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership of China and Russia, and boosting the strategy coordination and joint combat ability of the two nations”.
A US defence department paper, the “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report”, published on June 1, was similarly uncompromising. It identified China and Russia as threatening powers attempting to change the status quo and clearly signalled America’s Indo-Pacific strategy was military in nature.
All this suggests the modern world’s most dynamic region has become its most dangerous flashpoint. It also brings to mind a quote by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter.
Brzezinski warned, in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, that the most dangerous scenario for the free world was one where it faced a “grand coalition of China and Russia”. ■ ■
Cary Huang is a veteran China affairs columnist, having written on the topic since the early 1990s