Wednesday, December 11, 2019, 15:01 (GMT+7)

Friday, November 15, 2019, 15:59 (GMT+7)
Behind the controversy over airspace infringement between Russia – Japan – Korea and its implications for regional security

The fact that Russian warplane intruded into the area claimed by both Japan and Korea has triggered controversy over marine territory. It was soon settled to ease the tension but the incident showed that risks of conflicts still persist in Northeast Asia which badly affect regional security.

Abundance of risk

With an area of just over 0.18 square km without arable land or fresh water, the offshore and rocky Dokdo (named by Korea) or Takeshima (named by Japan) islands are home to around 40 people in which over 30 of them are South Korean policemen who are tasked with guarding mission. However, for both Japan and Korea, the islands are of importance in terms of sovereignty as the two countries both claim territory over a century ago. On 23rd July 2019, one Russian military plane while conducting joint exercise with China flied over the islands, which was immediately followed by South Korean flares and over 300 warning shots. After Chung Eui-yong, Director of Korean National Security Office, announced the incident, Japanese Government voiced their criticism of Korean for acting in their territory. Later, Tokyo lodged their protest to both Seoul and Moscow for intruding their airspace.

In fact, the above incident is one of the risks, including North Korea’s nuclear program that can inflame conflicts in the Northeast Asia. To be more specific, for the past several years, China, Russia, Japan, and Korea have been drawn into long lasting disputes over marine sovereignty. Besides the Japan-Korea dispute over the Dokdo – Takeshima islands, the region also sees the stand-off between Russia and Japan in the settlement of the Kuril islands which Japan calls “Northern Territories”. This is the reason why the two countries haven’t signed a peace agreement although World War II ended 74 years ago. Basing on the Treaty of Shimoda signed in 1855, Japan demands that Russia hand over what they call “Northern Territories” including the islands of Etorofy, Kunasiri, Shikotan and Habormai and maintains that this is the prerequisite for a peace agreement. On the contrary, Russia holds that the Soviet Union's sovereignty over the islands was recognized in post-war agreements; hence Russia has undisputable sovereignty over the islands. These territory disputes have become “bottle neck” delaying Russo - Japan peace process.

Another territorial dispute in the region is the stand-off between China and South Korea over the sovereignty of a rocky reef which is called Ieodo by South Korea and Suyan Rock by China. In 2003, Seoul completed the construction of an ocean research station in an effort to strengthen their control and determination to protect the submerged rock that Korea claims to lie within their EEZ. In response, in 2013, China put the island in their Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea while claiming to strengthen patrol over the islands. This was severely protested by Korea and Seoul scrambled its fighter jets to intercept China’s reconnaissance planes flying into the airspace claimed byKorea.

As far as the Sino-Japan relations concern, recently, although their disputes over Diaoyu (named by China) – Senkaku (named by Japan) islands seem to reduce, military and coast guard vessels of the two countries are still chasing each other around the area. Earlier before, the Sino – Japan relations once fell into crisis causing concern of international opinion about a military conflict between the two powers in North East Asia. According to historical records, Japan claimed to find Senkaku in 1884. After their defeat in World War II, the US took control of the islands and it became a testing site for American bombs. In 1972, Japan regained their control of the islands and soon after China claimed sovereignty over the so called “Diaoyu” islands. China’s claim was based on an unclear map published in 1403 which specified the existence of the islands. In the 1970s, both China and Japan agreed to shelve the dispute but China has become more aggressive since 2012 after Japan’s nationalization of the islands. China saw this action as a provocation and deployed their vessels and planes to the area to put pressure on Japan. More than one year after, on 23rd November 2013, China established their Air Defence Identification Zone on the East China Sea including the islands, which is seen as China’s attempt to change the status quo on the East China Sea. With the ongoing evolutions, experts hold that the incident happened on 23rd July 2019, though instant, has unveiled to the world the complications in North East Asia – a region of bilateral and multi-lateral contradictions in which historical and territorial issues represent difficult challenges to overcome.

Potential risks of conflict in Northeast Asia

Northeast Asia is of geo-political and strategic importance but also sees international contradictions which can potentially undermine the regional stability. Therefore, analysts hold that Russian Airforce intrusion into the disputed airspace between Korea and Japan is not a mere incident but more of an experiment for a “military alliance” between Moscow and Beijing. Russian Ministry of Defence calls this the first joint air patrol with long range plane in Asia-Pacific region between Russia and China. As the two countries haven’t signed such a joint defence treaty like the one between US and Japan or between US and NATO members, joint exercise is one way for Russia and China to test their ability to conduct joint operations in reality. According to Russian analyst Alexandre Gabouiev, Moscow and Beijing moving closer to each other is taken for granted, particularly amid the context that their relations with US (and its allies) are turning increasingly bad. In a more general view, the joint patrol is like a challenge to the US influence in the Asia-Pacific as just a slight move of Russia and China made Korea terminate their intelligence-sharing deal with Japan on 22 August 2019; suspend the exchange of military cadets between the two sides; and deepen the controversy over territory between the two allies of the US. If Russia and China continue to tighten their military ties, this will be a nightmare to the Northeast Asian region and US pivoting strategy.

In the US Pivot to Asia, Northeast Asia represents one of the strategic and pivotal regions in interest where China, a barrier to the US increasing influence in Asia, and North Korea, a US rogue state with unpredictable actions, are located. However, the region is also home to two important allies of the US, namely Japan and Korea. With US military bases, Japan and Korea are seen as US pincers to contain China. US supports Japan not only in the dispute over the Diaoyu – Senkaku islands with China but also in its rearticulation of Constitution to build a capable military force and to conduct collective defence with the US military. Notably, that the Pentagon installed its second X-band radar system in Kyoto in the late 2014; discussed with Japan about the relocation of US forces in Okinawa and reconsidered their ally relations, has shown the US commitment to the regional security in the new situation.

In another move, US and Korea have strengthened relations with the signing of the Joint Vision for Alliance in 2009 which emphasised the economic and military ties. The treaty allowed for the US to sign the Free trade agreement with Korea which came into effect in 2012 and was resigned in 2018 and considered as a significant headway in their bilateral relations. Especially, US and Korea has reached an agreement on the US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD). Although both US and Korea claimed that THAAD is aimed to respond to threats from North Korea but it is obvious that with the deployment of the THAAD systems in Korea, US will gain much advantage in military correlation with China.

Regarding Korea and Japan as key actors in containing China, Washington will not just see Russia and China joining hands to weaken its Northeast Asian allies’ relations without doing anything. Immediately after Dokdo incident, US voiced its support for their allies. Accordingly, the Pentagon spokesman Dave Eastburn stated: “The United States strongly supports our ROK and Japanese allies and their responses to air space incursions by Chinese and Russian aircraft. The (Defense Department) is in close coordination with our ROK and Japanese allies about these events, and will continue to monitor activities”.

It can be said that Northeast Asian situation will continue to evolve with both compromise and competition and be deeply influenced by the US, China and Russia. Although US foreign policies under Donald Trump administration are much different from those of his predecessors, they will not change their fundamental interests in Asia – Pacific. Therefore, the escalation of force, marine sovereignty dispute and rivalry in the hot spots will be the main flashpoints in Northeast Asia which will considerably affect the regional stability. That said, experts hold that the situation is still put under control and chance for a conflict is low.

Lam Phuong – Trinh Thai Lai

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