Russia-China Bomber Patrol Shows Stronger Alignment Between the Two
This week Russia and China conducted their first joint long-range military aviation patrol, an event of strategic significance as part of a pattern of growing military-to-military cooperation between the two countries. Moscow showed it was willing to take on greater geopolitical risk in the region for the sake of this relationship: As has been widely reported, the flight involved a dangerous altercation between Russian aircraft and scrambled South Korean fighters over disputed territory in the Sea of Japan. The Russian Defense Ministry said definitively that the bomber patrol was not aimed at any third countries, which means that it was: Moscow is signaling a growing and increasingly institutionalized military relationship with China, reminding its neighbors in Asia that it is a military power in the region whose interests should be considered. Military signaling in general is fraught with misperception, but its lack of efficacy has yet to convince any major power to stop engaging in these types of behaviors.
Fireworks Over the Sea of Japan
The most interesting part of the incident with South Korea is how intentional Russia’s actions seemed to be. The plane Seoul accuses of violating its airspace—a Beriev A-50 airborne-warning and control aircraft—could have chosen a different route. It had launched from Russia’s Eastern Military District, together with two Tu-95MS strategic bombers, and the trio met up with a comparable Chinese combat grouping—a pair of H-6K long-range bombers and a KJ-2000 battle-space-management aircraft—in the Sea of Japan. Over the course of the patrol, the A-50 flew close to a Korean-controlled island, also claimed by Japan, straying into what South Korea considers to be its national airspace—twice. First it drew warning shots from Korean fighters as it went southward toward the East China Sea, and then again returning north.
Despite the fireworks—with Korean jets maneuvering close to the Russian aircraft and dispensing flares before firing the warning shots—the incident was not as dramatic as media reports made out. First of all, the impressive-sounding 360 rounds expended by Korea’s air force constituted a handful of warning shots, possibly as few as two, in very short bursts; a 20mm six-barrel gun system fires 100 rounds per second. Second, the A-50 is an unarmed support aircraft (which perhaps played a role in the choice of its route). While South Korea says it tried multiple radio warnings before engaging in more forceful forms of signaling, Russia denies violating Korean air space, and has somewhat oddly claimed that no warning shots were fired at all. Moscow's view is that Korea’s air force engaged in "aerial hooliganism" and "unprofessional maneuvers."1
The disputed island in question, Dokdo (Takeshima in Japanese), has been contested by Seoul and Tokyo for decades and made the Russian-Chinese bomber patrol all the more ticklish a matter. Apart from the A-50’s incursion into Korean air space, the joint patrol traversed the self-declared air defense identification zones (ADIZ) of both South Korea and Japan. Not just Seoul but Tokyo, too, scrambled fighters to escort the Russian-Chinese overflight—in all, eleven different times during its mission.2 Japan seemed less concerned with the island, occupied by South Korea since the 1950s, and more concerned with Seoul’s and Moscow’s actions: Japan's foreign minister sought to denounce everyone, stating, "It is Japan that should take action against the Russian plane that entered its airspace. It is incompatible with Japan’s stance that South Korea takes steps on that." The Russian view of the affair was nicely summed up by the Defense Ministry's official newspaper, Red Star: "Let our Asian neighbors continue figuring out who owns 0.19 square kilometers of volcanic rock."
The Bigger Picture
Controversy aside, there are lasting implications from what at first glance may appear a one-off air-to-air encounter. The nature of Russian-Chinese cooperation has been debated hotly by experts. The relationship has been assessed by some as an alignment of convenience, based on a transactional relationship with little scope for evolution and certainly its share of disappointments, especially for the Russian side. But there is a stronger argument to be made that an alignment, however fitful, is forming at the political level and has been strengthened by an institutionalized military relationship. Since 2012, the two countries have begun a regimented series of joint exercises and annual strategic consultations. Following on Chinese participation in the Vostok-2018 military exercises, it seems evident that pronouncements on next steps in military-to-military cooperation made by both sides were not mere platitudes.
In 2017 the two countries adopted a three-year plan for military cooperation, through 2020, at the initiative of the Russian Defense Ministry. As joint exercises intensified, both sides perceived that they lacked the established agreements to underpin this regimen. An agreement is set to be signed in the near future as both countries seek to transition existing cooperation to a more permanent basis, codifying it such that more complex joint exercises can be held.
With the joint bomber patrol, Moscow has taken a small but publicly visible next step in signaling that, beyond mere words, it is willing to put skin in the game and accept more political cost on behalf of its relationship with China. Russia has rather good relations with South Korea and Japan and it is unlikely to pay a serious price for patrols with these countries. Nonetheless, it is an important signal to China that Russia values its relationship with Beijing sufficiently to irk other regional actors. While Russian and Korean political leadership work to suppress the fallout from the A-50 episode, Russia’s Defense Ministry has been keen to trumpet the patrol as part of its growing relationship with Chinese counterparts, carried out, according to a ministry press release, “with the aim of deepening Russian-Chinese relations within our all-encompassing partnership, of further increasing cooperation between our armed forces and perfecting their capabilities to carry out joint actions and of strengthening global strategic security."
The intended audience for Russia’s broader messaging, beyond countries in the region, is the United States. In some respects, the patrol could be considered a joint Russo-Chinese “freedom of navigation operation” aimed at Washington, which may be why Moscow chose to overfly a disputed island and engage in a technical air space violation. Certainly, America's great-power adversaries hope that their shared antagonist pays attention. Russia’s actions can also be interpreted as a reminder to neighboring Asian countries that while Russia may not be an Asian power, it remains a military power in Asia. (And scrambling jets against strategic bombers is an expensive response policy for countries’ air defenses.)
Moscow has made a habit of employing military signaling in an effort to get neighboring states to take its interests and concerns seriously. Such efforts have typically backfired, as countries who feel threatened tend to balance against bellicose powers in their region more than to accommodate them. Unintended consequences have rarely stopped Moscow from continuing this form of communication. In some ways strategic cultures tend to be alike in that they assume adversaries only respect strength, and so the more military power they can demonstrate, the more goodness there is to be found in said demonstrations—even if they often lead to retaliatory displays of military power based on the same rationale.
Though frequently dismissed in the United States, the case for a more tangible alignment between Russia and China grows stronger every year. Whether it will rise to the level of an entente or even alliance remains in question, but the current trajectory takes this relationship well beyond a mere “alignment of convenience,” as it is at times described, or perhaps dismissed. One of the signs of a strengthening alignment is when both sides take actions that are decidedly inconvenient for their other interests or relationships, particularly in the region, and show willingness to take some risk on behalf of their cooperation. Perhaps some years into the future analysts will look back on joint Russian-Chinese bomber patrols, and the upcoming military agreement, and see them as one of the more visible milestones in the countries' relationship.
- There is a particularly painful history between Moscow and Seoul, stemming from the infamous 1983 shoot-down of Korean Air Lines flight 007 by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor after the plane strayed unaware over Soviet air space.
- In recent years Russian and Chinese aircraft have been frequently intercepted in Japan's or South Korea's ADIZ. For example, in 2018 Japan's air force intercepted Russian aircraft 343 times and Chinese aircraft 638 times.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Michael Kofman is a senior research scientist with the CNA Corporation and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Kennan Institute.
Photo from the Kremlin press service.