South Korea-Russia air incident could mark 'turning point' for region - expert

A joint air patrol by Russia and China which ended in South Korea firing warning shots may have been a deliberate attempt to stoke tensions in the region, an East Asia expert says.

South Korea said it fired more than 300 warning shots at a Russian A-50 military aircraft on Tuesday after it twice violated its airspace. Both Russia and China have denied the intrusion.

The unprecedented confrontation took place over disputed islands in the East Sea (also known as the Sea of Japan), which are claimed by both South Korea and Japan. Japan confirmed it had also deployed fighter jets to intercept the Russian aircraft, at the same time condemning South Korea for firing warning shots, given its own claim to the islands.

South Korea-Russia air incident

The Russian A-50 military aircraft in an image taken by Japan's Air Self-Defence Force.

Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, described it as a “dramatic event” with many new and “extremely worrisome” dimensions.

“This is increasingly what’s happening in North East Asia – Russian forces and Chinese forces are co-ordinated and doing their air patrols around US allies. In this case, they intruded not once, but twice – there’s no way that’s not deliberate.”

The incident occurred amid an escalating dispute between South Korea and Japan, following Japan’s announcement in early July that it would restrict exports of chemicals which are vital to South Korea’s electronics industry. The spat is fuelled by a historical feud dating back to Japan’s colonisation of Korea in 1910.

That the incident took place over disputed islands – known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan – was particularly significant, Smith said.

Sheila A. Smith

Sheila A. Smith, currently visiting New Zealand, is senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Both South Korea and Japan claim those islands – they’re both defending their sovereignty by scrambling fighter jets. So you now have four of the major militaries of North East Asia in the air together, over contested sovereignty between two American allies.

“I think the Russians and the Chinese decided they were going to poke a little bit. And they got a very good response.”

On Wednesday, South Korea’s government said a Russian official had expressed “deep regret” for the incident, blaming it on a technical glitch. But Moscow has denied that it made an official apology.

When asked if such an incident could trigger war, Smith, who is currently being hosted by the Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies as the Sir Howard Kippenberger Chair, compared the situation to the Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute between China and Japan. That row intensified in 2010 after the captain of a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese patrol ships near the islands.

“I think we should have a healthy regard for the fact that war can be inadvertent… and I think that incident [on Tuesday] was serious, for a number of reasons. I think we’re probably going to look back and see it as a turning point of some sort.”

Article by Siobhan Downes.

 - Asia Media Centre