Monday, July 29, 2019

New Russia-China Military Alliance in Asia-Pacific?

Russian Air Force A-50

South China Sea is crowded - with oil tankers, commercial ships, naval vessels, newly minted islands, fishing boats, white hulled coastguard ships carrying flags of different countries. Chinese policy of transforming entire South-China Sea to Chinese lake is going to make it crowder. During these times 'Sea of Japan' was relatively calm. However, coordinated patrol (probably first ever) of Russian and Chinese planes on July 22 suddenly made it a point of interest.

Beriev A-50 airborne warning and control aircraft launched from Russia's eastern military district, joined two Tu-95MS strategic bombers and met up with two H-6K long range bombers and a KJ-2000 battle management aircraft in Sea of Japan. During its combined patrol, A-50 flew close to South Korean controlled island - Dokdo (also claimed by Japan, they call the island ‘Takeshima’) - and crossed South Korean Airspace over the island twice. First while it was going to East China Sea and second time, when it was coming back. South Korea launched her fighters (18 F-15K Slam Eagle and KF-16 jet fighters) to intercept the joint patrol and fired warning shots in quick bursts. Russia deny all of this, as per them, South Korean actions are 'aerial hooliganism' and 'unprofessional maneuvers'.

Apart from A-50 which crossed South Korean airspace over the islands, other aircrafts in this group violated self-declared air defense identification zones (ADIZ) of both S.Korea and Japan. 'Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)s' are different from sovereign air Space. ADIZ is beyond a country's national airspace - beyond 12 nautical miles from host country's shoreline - where identification of aircrafts is performed. This allows host country more time to respond to a hostile airplane. However, ADIZ is not defined or recognized by any international treaty/law.

Japan also scrambled her fighters in response to Russia-China joint patrol. As Japan is a party to island dispute, they condemned actions of all three - Moscow, Beijing and Seoul.
This incident revels some significant changes which may become very important in near future in South and East Asian theatres.

1. Institutionalized military relationship between Russia and China

Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is growing strong day by day. Earlier, the relation was based on economic necessities of both nations. Russia needed to diversify its petrochemical consumer base, they can't have all their gas and oil going to EU through Ukraine with whom Moscow has an adverse relationship. Hence, energy hungry China gave them some maneuvering room in case of a future US/EU sanctions due to any Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe. At the same time, China also need an alternate oil and gas supply route which doesn’t pass through Indian ocean (right under the nose of Indian and US navies) and then through geographical chokepoint known as Malacca Straight. It was a marriage of convenience. It won’t be wrong to say that Russia was a bit reluctant to go for a full Chinese embrace. Chinese also didn’t want to identify as twin brother of Russia.

On military side, Moscow withheld supply of fighter jet engines (fearing the duplicates popping up on next day). However, this changed later. Currently China is planning to buy 5th generation Su57E fighter jets. This is in addition to Su-35 fighter jets Beijing is already buying from Moscow. China got possession of first batch of S400 missile air defense regiment last year. Slowly, this marriage of convenience is going to the next level. Since 2012, both countries are conducting joint exercises and other consultations. Last year, Beijing participated in Vostok 2018 military exercises.

2. Freedom of Navigation in Air

US is frequently conducting Freedom of Navigation of Seas operations in South China sea. As none of the South China Sea nations has the power to stand up to China one on one basis; and in the absence of a regional military framework like NATO, China is free to do whatever they want to do. To protect her own and allies interest US led navigation operations are a problem for complete Chinese dominance. In addition to that, US military planes neither recognize nor identify on Chinese ADIZs.

Hence, joint patrol with Russia over a disputed island can be considered as a tit for tat action from Beijing. The question is, will this be a onetime event or going to be a new normal. This also depends on how far Russia is willing to go in upsetting her otherwise good relations S.Korea and Japan.

3. Russia boosting military assets in Russian Far East

Considered as a land based European power, Russia want to be known as a major player in Asian theatre as well. Strategically also, opening a new theatre in East Asia will take the heat away from its otherwise stalemate operations in Ukraine. For some time, Russia was boosting her military presence in Russian far east with deployment of new S-400 air defense systems and Bastion anti-ship missile systems.

4. Backfire on Russia

Inserting unnecessarily into conflicts against countries with which Russia has otherwise good relations is going to backfire. If Russia is sending signals that it is ready to accept political cost on behalf of China; then it is not going to go down well with Seoul or Tokyo. In addition to that, new military alliance will only push other countries further into US orbit. Chinese are more calculative and do in depth analysis before they get into something. I don't think, Chinese are going to back any Russian adventurism in Eastern or Central Europe. In the end only Russians will end up paying the price.

It is to be remembered here that, last year Moon became the first ever South Korean president to visit Russia, and both countries’ air forces established a hotline as well.

5. More problems for US

Infighting between Seoul and Japan over WWII War Crimes, forced labor and Comfort Woman cases already affecting the trade between two nations. These issues are driven by passion and nationalism which is not going to fade away any time soon. In addition to that, China brought Cambodia fully into her orbit. New Chinese naval base and Cambodia’s purchase of Chinese weaponry is going to enhance these relations. Philippines' president hardly says any word against China despite multiple issues in South China sea, where Philippines ended up victims. Other countries in the area has deep economic links with China and are heavily dependent on Chinese investment. Vietnam may an exception here.

In addition to that, Chinese are entrenching her position in South China sea by building and weaponizing new islands.

6. Indian Context

India need to consider new political equations in East Asia very seriously. For more than six decades Russia remained as a major ally and weapon systems provider. At the same time, we have a lot of outstanding border issues with China. In addition to that, China is an all-time friend of Pakistan. It is to be remembered here that China blocked Indian demand for UNSC declaring Masood Azhar as terrorist numerous times. China also blocked India's entry to NSG.

In this situation, a Moscow-Beijing military alignment is not good news for India. Russia's movement to Chinese orbit is only going to push India further away from Russia and more to US. Moreover, if Russia is going to sell the same equipment to China - which Russia is selling to India now - there is no point of buying more from Russia.

7. China-Korea Relations

After deployment of THAAD missile defense system by Moon's predecessor (Park Geun-hye) China-South Korea relations spiraled downward. This also led to street protests in China and caused an estimated $10bn loss to S.Korean business. It is believed that, later S.Korea under Moon conceded to Chinese demands - No further US Anti-Ballistic missile systems, No integration to US led regional missile systems and no trilateral military alliance with US and Japan. In this situation, why China made this move?

It is to be remembered here that; China generally don't act on impulsion. They always move with a well thought out strategy. If we take this into consideration, then Beijing might have assumed a calculated risk. Current Korean - Japanese relations are not in good shape. Hence, patrol over a disputed Korean administrated island - which Japan also claims – may be enough as a rebuttal for US freedom of navigation operations on sea but not enough to push Korea to the other end. We will see in coming days whether Chinese crossed the line, or they just pushed the line little further. US under current administration is passive on issues related to South East Asian security framework. Hence some adventurism may not invite any big push back.

Crossing boundaries and firing warning shorts is risky. It is to be remembered here that, a Korean Air Lines flight (from New York City to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska) was shot down by Soviet Su-15 interceptor after Boeing 747 was deviated from its original planned route and flew through Soviet's prohibited airspace due to technical problem. All 269 people on board were killed in that incident. Hope that, all stake holders will careful enough not to cause any accidents.


Note 1:
As per Reuters report, "Japan regularly scrambles fighters to intercept Chinese and Russian aircraft that fly close to its territory, with 999 such intercepts in the twelve months that ended on March 31".

Note 2:
In order to avoid taking sides with either allies, US call this island - 'Liancourt Rocks'.


1. WSJ
3. National Interest

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