Head-To-Head: Russia, Japan, South Korea, and China Face-Off in the Skies over the Pacific

Lyle J. Goldstein

Lyle J. Goldstein

Security, East Asia

How a Russia-China long-range joint aviation exercise got Russia more than it bargained for.

Head-To-Head: Russia, Japan, South Korea, and China Face-Off in the Skies over the Pacific

The South China Sea cauldron has been at a full boil now for nearly a dozen years, chiefly over the significance of various obscure reefs and rocks. But, thankfully, the occurrence of shooting among the claimants and external powers has been extremely rare, underlying the obvious risks that such a course would entail. Thus, it came as a surprise to many that South Korean interceptors fired warning shots at a Russian military aircraft over the Sea of Japan on the morning of 22 July.

With four major powers suddenly appearing to lock horns in that same dispute, the incident would seem to be further evidence of the “great unraveling” in the world order. Indeed, the episode is bizarre in numerous respects, not least because the Russia-South Korea dyad has been one of the least conflictual in this volatile region over the last decade. In fact, as a symbol of these strengthening ties, President Moon Jae-in took the unusual step of making the long trip to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin last summer. Moreover, the dangerous aviation encounter last week had the similarly strange effect of, at least temporarily, stealing the thunder from Pyongyang’s recent missile tests that were apparently intended as “a warning to South Korean warmongers.”

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