A Russian military plane’s incursion into Japanese airspace last week seems to be viewed by many Japanese government officials as an attempt, assisted by China, to throw off balance the three-way collaboration among Japan, the United States and South Korea.
Meanwhile, Japan plans to use North Korea’s latest launches of projectiles as an opportunity to strengthen its close cooperation with the United States and South Korea, government officials said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday it had carried out a joint long-range patrol with China’s air force for the first time above the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.
According to the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, on Tuesday morning two Chinese H-6 bombers flew from the East China Sea toward the Tsushima Strait and entered Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. They headed north and joined up with two TU-95 bombers and an A-50 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane operated by the Russian military.
Of them, the A-50 AWACS aircraft intruded into Japanese airspace twice around the Takeshima Islands, off Shimane Prefecture. It was the first such intrusion by a Russian military plane, ministry officials said.
During the incident, South Korean fighter jets fired hundreds of warning shots at the Russian plane. The islands are effectively controlled by South Korea, which calls them Dokdo.
A senior Air Self-Defense Force official said the moves by China and Russia may have been aimed at interrupting cooperation between Japan and South Korea.
Toshiyuki Ito, a professor at Kanazawa Institute of Technology’s Toranomon Graduate School and former head of the ASDF, said that the flights were “a message from China and Russia against security cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea.”
“If tensions continue between the United States and China and between the United States and Russia, similar incidents will take place again,” he said.
Ito regards the Russian plane’s airspace violation as an operational mistake. In peacetime, there is no need to make an airspace incursion that involves the risk of being shot down.
On Thursday morning, two days after the airspace violation, North Korea fired two projectiles into the Sea of Japan that were believed to be new short-range ballistic missiles.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono held separate telephone talks Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, reaffirming that the three countries would work closely on North Korean issues.
The Japanese government plans to strengthen the three-way cooperation in response to the provocation by North Korea.
However, uncertainty hangs over cooperation between Japan and South Korea due to their dispute over Japan’s tightened export controls on South Korea, which in turn stemmed from bilateral tensions over South Korean court rulings on Japanese companies’ use of wartime forced labor.
Due to the strained ties, optimism that Japan, the United States and South Korean will be able to deal appropriately with attempts by China and Russia to drive a wedge into the three-way cooperation would be unwarranted, experts suggest.