Russia carried out what it said was its first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia Pacific region with China on Tuesday, a mission that triggered hundreds of warning shots, according to South Korean officials, and a strong protest from Japan.
The flight by two Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers and two Chinese H-6 bombers backed up by a Russian A-50 early warning plane and its Chinese counterpart, a KJ-2000, marks a notable ramping-up of military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow.
This is likely to worry politicians from Washington to Tokyo and could complicate relations and raise tension in a region that has for years been overshadowed by hostility between the United States and North Korea.
While troops and naval ships from Russia and China have taken part in joint war games before, they have not conducted such air patrols in the Asia Pacific region together until Tuesday, according to Russia’s Ministry of Defence.
“The joint patrol was carried out with the aim of deepening Russian-Chinese relations within our all-encompassing partnership, of further increasing cooperation between our armed forces, and of perfecting their capabilities to carry out joint actions, and of strengthening global strategic security,” the ministry said in a statement.
Seoul and Tokyo, who both scrambled jets to intercept the Russian-Chinese mission, accused Russia and China of violating their airspaces, an allegation Moscow and Beijing denied.
South Korean warplanes fired hundreds of warning shots towards the Russian A-50 military aircraft, defence officials in Seoul said, saying it was the first time a Russian military aircraft had violated South Korean airspace.
Moscow denied those assertions, while China’s Defence Ministry said that their joint air patrol in Northeast Asia “does not target any third party.” Spokesman Wu Qian said in Beijing the two countries each sent two bombers for the patrols along established air routes and that they “didn’t enter the territorial airspace of other countries”.