On Tuesday, July 23rd, a combined Sino-Russian air operation nearly sparked a four-way air battle over the Sea of Japan by coming provocatively close to the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands. Sometime in the middle of the day, the Republic of Korea scrambled fighters to intercept a large flight of Russian and Chinese bombers plus fighter escorts and a control aircraft that approached the sensitive airspace. The Korean jets fired warning shots, causing the intruders to change course. A few minutes later however, the package returned and was again intercepted by the Koreans. This time, Japanese fighters also responded, leading to a very dangerous situation and a formal protest from Tokyo.
Though the scramble of fighters is not uncommon in these waters — Japan did so 390 times in 2017 — the discharge of weapons is a very serious incident, especially over disputed airspace. What remains uncertain however is whether the intrusion was an accident or a deliberate act intended to cause discord between two US allies. Russia initially denied culpability, accusing the Koreans of “hooliganism in the air” and questioning the legitimacy of the Korean air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Later that day however, Moscow blamed it on a technical glitch and promised to launch an investigation. Statements from the Chinese defense ministry on the other hand, contradicted the Russian stance; claiming the flight was executed as planned and insisting their aircraft did not violate Korean air space. Deliberate or not, the incident exposed widening cracks in US-led security arrangements in Northeast Asia and exacerbated a growing trade dispute between Japan and the Republic of Korea.
The Dokdo/Takeshima Islands
The tiny islands called Dokdo by the Republic of Korea and Takeshima by Japan have been an irritant in Japanese-Korean relations since the Second World War. Occupied by Korea but claimed by Japan, the rising economic and military power of Korea in the past 20 years increased the islands’ importance as a symbol of national sovereignty and pride. As a result, the frequency and intensity of squabbles over them also increased. Depending which source one consults, the islands were officially recognized as Korean in the 17th century but annexed by Japan during their colonization of the Korean kingdom beginning in 1905. Though not specifically mentioned in the San Francisco Treaty that ended American occupation of Japan, the islands were mostly forgotten until Korean forces occupied them in 1952 where they remain to this day. Despite recognizing the islands as Japanese, the US-led occupation government (still operating at that time) in Tokyo muted Japanese protests in order to maintain a unified front in Northeast Asia against the rise of Communism there.
The islands became important again in 1994 when the UN convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) came into force. UNCLOS drastically increased the economic importance of even the smallest of maritime terrain features as states all over the globe used them to delimit the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Since then, Dokdo/Takeshima has become more than just a point of pride, it is the key to some of the world’s best fishing grounds and any other economic riches that may lie within the 200 nautical mile EEZ surrounding it.
The Sino-Russian air operation on Tuesday also touched on how Beijing and Moscow believe boundaries should be drawn and security administered in Northeast Asia. The Korean ADIZ, for example, is not completely recognized by China or Russia, though they have different reasons to dispute the boundaries of that airspace management tool. For its part, China also has territorial disputes with both Japan and Korea in the East China Sea. By ensuring their air patrol also came close to the Socotra Rocks in the East China Sea (disputed with Korea), China and Russia managed to irritate the allies on a number of touch points simultaneously.
The incident over Dokdo/Takeshima took place at a time when Japan and Korea are involved in an escalating trade dispute. Faced with an upper house election last week and falling tech exports due to the ongoing US-China trade war, Japan tightened its approval process on tech-related chemicals critical to Korean manufacture of memory chips. The Koreans, whose semiconductor industry makes 2/3 of the world’s memory chips for smart phones, accused the Japanese of retaliating for a Korean court decision demanding compensation to victims of forced labor during the Second World War. Japan rejected this claim but took steps to prevent World Trade Organization (WTO) sanctions by invoking national security, citing cases of inappropriate export of the chemicals in question to North Korea. Tokyo then doubled-down on their position by threatening to remove South Korea from a “white list” of countries with whom Japanese companies can trade with minimal oversight. Korea argues, with some justification, such a move would have devastating impact on the global supply chain that supports smart phone manufacture.
All these complex escalations took place in the two weeks leading up to the incident at Dokdo/Takeshima. Whether or not Japanese trade sanctions and the Korean responses to them are actually connected to ongoing disputes over wartime labor or a tiny set of islands, the dangerous incident in the skies over the Sea of Japan puts the convergence of all this disruptive maneuvering into a very disturbing context. If nothing else, it highlights the connections between politics, trade, and security in Northeast Asia. To the extent this was the intent of Russia and China, it will be interesting to see whether the United States plays a constructive role in cooling the temperature amid its own contentious trade disputes in the region.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.