On June 23, Russian and Chinese air forces sent four long-range bombers, accompanied by airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft on a joint patrol mission over the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. This was the first joint air patrol carried out by Russian and Chinese air forces outside of their respective borders. Moreover, the aircraft group’s course was chartered through one of the most politically sensitive regions in Northeast Asia, passing over the Dokdo (Takeshima) Islands, the sovereignty over which is contested by Japan and South Korea. The joint patrol triggered off a scandal, with the South Korean and Japanese authorities claiming that one of the Russian aircraft from the joint patrol group twice violated the airspace above the Dokdo Islands. According to Seoul, jets sent by South Korea to intercept the Russian plane went as far as to fire warning shots. Russian and Chinese officials denied the reports that their planes had violated the airspace of any third countries, stressing that the patrol was carried out strictly above international waters.
Regardless of whether the airspace above the Dokdo Islands was actually violated, the very fact that Russia and China carried out their first long-range joint air patrol is noteworthy both in political and strategic terms. There is no doubt that by doing so Moscow and Beijing wanted to send a political signal that their “strategic partnership” is not just a “paper tiger”, but a real force in East Asia that Washington and its allies will have to reckon with. Back in 2016, Russia and China already undertook a similar operation, when their warships were spotted at the same time not far away from the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands), the sovereignty over which is disputed by China and Japan. This led Tokyo to suspect that the maneuvers carried out by Russian and Chinese battleships were coordinated. At the time, Moscow and Beijing refrained from commenting on these developments, and have neither confirmed nor denied Japan’s suspicions. In July 2019, China and Russia also carried out a joint military operation near other disputed territories, but this time they acted in a straightforward manner and maybe even wanted to make a statement that would resonate as much as possible.
In fact, the Russian and Chinese defense ministries are currently working on a new military cooperation agreement to replace the 1993 instrument to this effect, and the new treaty will probably signal a new level in the two countries’ military cooperation. It may well be that the July 23 patrol is just the first manifestation of this enhanced cooperation. Russia and China may continue their joint military missions outside of their borders, expanding their scale and enhancing coordination. Some Russian observers believe that creating a common pool of auxiliary forces, for example, distant early warning aircraft or tanker aircraft that would serve Russian and Chinese jets and bombers on missions in the Asia Pacific, could be the next step. If Russia and China keep moving toward a closer military partnership, this will inevitably affect the strategic landscape in the Western Pacific, considering that it has been completely dominated by the United States over the past decades. It may well be that this is what the actual purpose of the joint actions made by Russia and China is all about. By acting this way they want to challenge the system of the US-led alliances and tip the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific in their favor. Neither China nor Russia can aspire to undermine US dominance in the Pacific separately. Moscow and Beijing stand a chance only if they act together.
Whether we will witness any other joint patrols or other military missions carried out by Russia and China outside of East Asia is another question though. For example, could they undertake something similar in the Atlantic, in the Middle East, in the Arctic or even in the Caribbean? This is not impossible, especially considering China’s growing capability to project its military might far beyond its own borders by relying on its overseas bases (Djibouti, Gwadar, etc.). So far however it is Northeast Asia and the Northern Pacific that are the regions that appear to be best suited for building a Russia-China military alliance. Both Russia and China have a foothold in this region, and have substantial military capabilities that can be complementary. In this sense, it can be argued that the Pacific may well be a starting point for a Moscow-Beijing military alliance.
Compared to Japan, South Korea is much more vulnerable in geopolitical and economic terms in the face of pressure coming from a China-Russia coalition. If Beijing and Moscow succeed in their carrot and stick strategy toward Seoul, this could weaken the US-South Korea alliance or even result in its breakdown. Russia and China will use demonstrative military actions similar to what was carried out on July 23 to remind South Korea that they can give it a very hard time. Of course, flexing military muscles is only one option when it comes to putting pressure on Seoul. There are also economic levers, considering the critical dependence of the South Korean economy on China. Beijing and Moscow can also influence the developments on the Korean Peninsula through their privileged relations with North Korea. The long-term objective pursued by Beijing and Moscow could be to achieve the Finlandization of South Korea, i.e. turning it into a neutral state that would refrain from taking any steps that could be detrimental to the interests of China or Russia. A neutralized South Korea would be a severe blow for the system of US-led alliances in Asia, undermining the geopolitical standing of the United States in the region and across the world.