On July 23, 2019, Russian warplanes intruded into South Korean airspace. They were accompanied by two Chinese bombers. The outstanding questions are whether the incidents represented a China-Russia challenge to US primacy in Asia, and whether an alliance between the two countries is on the cards.
According to Seoul, before their reported joint flights with the Russian planes, the Chinese aircraft entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone off its south-west coast. South Korean warplanes fired hundreds of warning shots at Russian bombers.
The incidents took place over two small islands disputed between South Korea and Japan — both US allies — in the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan. They represented an unprecedented confrontation. Both Moscow and Beijing have dismissed Seoul’s charges of their aircraft violating South Korea’s airspace. Meanwhile, Seoul and Tokyo sparred over the correctness of South Korea’s action.
The events also drew international attention to the Russia-China strategic tie in East Asia. Both countries seemed to have responded to the competitive US-led international situation by deepening their ties. Further, for the first time, America’s two key Asian allies appeared to have become the center-stage of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership.
That raised the question of Russian ambitions east of the Malacca Strait, at a time when the region appears dotted with flashpoints: Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong and the US-China trade war. The link between these diverse and possible powder kegs is the China-Russia challenge to US primacy in Asia.
The US had given its backing to South Korea and Japan in response to the airspace incursions by Chinese and Russian warplane, even as it assessed any threat to its pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific and the chances of a rebalancing of military influence in the area. To Washington, the exercise revealed the ambitions of Moscow and Beijing to further expand their scope of political influence, at a time when President Donald Trump’s military commitment to the Asia-Pacific is under question and Washington’s ties with regional allies sour.
While the flights signaled Sino-Russian convergence on challenging the US, they did not spell close military cooperation, let alone an alliance. China and Russia have jointly opposed Washington’s recent decision to scrap the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Recently China warned the US against the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Asia and advised Asian countries against hosting such missiles.
The issue of nuclear weapons suggests why the air forces of China and Russia conducted their patrol over South Korea. China and Russia repeatedly voiced opposition to America’s deployment in South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems that include long-range radars. The flight of four Chinese and Russian nuclear-capable bombers off the Korean Peninsula probably highlighted their anger with the presence of American missile defense systems in the area.
Trump’s call for a new treaty that would cap the nuclear arsenals not only of the US and Russia, but also of China, aroused Beijing’s indignation. The US and Russia hold 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, while China’s nuclear arsenal is only a fraction of what Russia and the US maintain, and Beijing has ruled out negotiations on the issue. So, is the Trump administration serious when it insists that it wants restrictions on China’s development of nuclear weapons? Or is Trump merely creating a diversion from other problems faced by the US?
What are the deeper implications of the Sino-Russian strategic tie? Military cooperation between the two countries started some 30 years ago, when Russia offered weapons to China. Some 15 years ago, the two countries’ armed forces began holding joint military drills, apparently to train troops to fight terrorists. Over the last few years, naval drills have enlarged their show of force in the Yellow and South China Seas, and much farther towards the west, in the Black Sea, Mediterranean and Arctic.
While China and Russia are opposed to America’s global dominance, Russia will be a secondary player with China in Asia.
Military cooperation between the two counties has been building up. In 2015, China became the first country to buy Russia’s S-400 defense missile. In 2018, China and Russia jointly held Vostok, their largest military drill, in Eastern Siberia. They have also held military drills with Central Asian countries under the auspices of the China-sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Their intent has been to boost the counter-attacking capabilities of their militaries and enhance cooperation between them.
Russian involvement in Pacific operations alongside the Chinese military does not in itself augur a possible conflict with the US in the region. For Russia, the show of force with China appears to enhance its military role in the Asia-Pacific. Russia has since long been a weak military player in the . Joint air operations with Asia’s strongest military and economic power could help it to achieve that aim.
However, increased military cooperation does not point to a China-Russia alliance. Their strategic priorities are different. At the top of Moscow’s strategic agenda are Europe and Russia’s “near abroad”. The Asia-Pacific is China’s main security interest. Russia has remained neutral on disputes in the South China Sea area. Apart from their concern of US pre-eminence, there is little to unite China and Russia in a formal alliance.
Deeper China-Russia cooperation on nuclear issues is most likely to achieve a stronger joint position in any parleys on arms limitations against the US. If military talks become more frequent, both countries are likely to discuss the increasing interoperability of their armed forces in East Asia.
What drives China and Russia closer in an age when there is no cold war – either between the US and China or between the US and Russia? None of these countries presents an ideological threat to the other. China is the greatest challenger to the global primacy of the US but its strength is rooted in its economic progress, rather than in the cold war style combination of alliances and nuclear weapons.
Some western circles believed that US hostility to Russia since it invaded Ukraine in 2014 is pushing it to cosy up to China. This argument ignores some important questions and facts. For instance, what price would Russia demand to win a free hand in Ukraine? Or Syria? And what would Putin give in return to the US if he were given that free hand in Ukraine? That is anyone’s guess.
At another level, an alliance would show up Russia’s many weaknesses vis-à-vis China. Russia and China are unequal partners. The military strength of both countries reveals that Russia is the junior player. Beijing and Moscow do not coordinate their activities against the US. Moreover, China cannot or will not offer Russia much substantive help in Syria. On the other side, Russia fails to offer China much in the South China Sea. And it is not a mediator in the US-China trade war.
China is enhancing its economic position in Central Asia and the Arctic at Russia’s expense. Russia was once dominant in both areas. The chances are that the more closely they try to cooperate, the more their disparate interests will become obvious and adversely affect their tie. While China and Russia are opposed to America’s global dominance, Russia will be a secondary player with China in Asia. The conclusion is that the US-China rivalry will dominate the Asia-Pacific in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, expect to see the US exert increasing pressure on its allies, including South Korea and Japan, to resolve their differences and to strengthen the regional front against China.