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. Apart from demonstrating the ever stronger military and strategic ties between Moscow and Beijing, the joint air patrol over the Pacific had a practical purpose of improving combat coordination between pilots. Another objective could have been to record how the South Korean and Japanese air forces and air defense systems would respond to Russian and Chinese aircraft for gathering intelligence data.