The first joint patrol by Russian and Chinese bombers aimed at testing the air defenses of U.S. allies in northeast Asia triggered a rare clash as South Korean fighters scrambled to ward off what Seoul said was an intrusion into its airspace.
South Korean pilots fired warning shots and flares Tuesday to repel a Russian command-and-control plane that was part of the bomber group, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said. Other Chinese and Russian warplanes passed several miles outside South Korean airspace, officials said.
The bomber patrol, which flew over the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, is part of a budding military partnership between Moscow and Beijing that presents a new challenge to Washington and its Asian allies.
The U.S. has military bases in South Korea and Japan, allowing it to station aircraft and ships relatively close to Chinese and Russian territory. The U.S. has some 90 combat aircraft in South Korea, according to the U.S.
During the height of tensions with North Korea, the U.S. sent nuclear-capable long-range bombers over the region to demonstrate its ability to strike targets there. South Korea has said that in case of war with North Korea, the U.S. would send 2,000 aircraft and 690,000 troops to the peninsula.
The Russian and Chinese foray was aimed at sending a warning, said Hong Hyun-ik, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul.
“This is a message to the U.S., Japan, and South Korea: ‘If you strengthen the U.S.-Japan military alliance, we have no choice but to react militarily as well,’ ” he said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry denied that its bombers had violated South Korean airspace and said South Korean fighters had engaged in provocative and dangerous maneuvers.
“South Korea has previously unsuccessfully tried to interfere with Russia’s flights above the neutral waters of the Sea of Japan,” the ministry said.
The Chinese government was aware of the matter but felt the incident wasn’t an infringement of South Korean sovereignty, a spokeswoman for Beijing said.
A Russian A-50 aircraft flew into the airspace over Dokdo, a pair of South Korean-administered islands in the waters between South Korea and Japan. In response, South Korea scrambled 18 jet fighters that fired 360 machine gun rounds and released flares, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said. The Russian A-50 entered and exited South Korean airspace twice, the ministry said.
It was the first time that a Russian military aircraft violated South Korean airspace, a senior South Korean official said.
Just before the Russian aircraft entered South Korean airspace, two Russian Tu-95 bombers and two Chinese H-6 warplanes—both capable of dropping nuclear weapons—had entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry. Air defense zones, which aren’t part of a country’s sovereign territory, have been used by countries in the region to track each other’s movements.
Seoul accused Chinese military planes of flyovers near South Korea at least six times last year.
Dokdo is at the center of a longstanding territorial dispute with Japan. International tensions over the island could further undermine cooperation between U.S. allies Seoul and Tokyo; the two have been entangled in a dispute over trade and history.
Tokyo lodged protests to Seoul and Moscow over Tuesday’s incident. Japan said South Korea and Russia had both violated its sovereignty by flying over Takeshima, Japan’s name for Dokdo.
The joint flight into South Korea’s airspace was likely in retribution for U.S. flyovers over the last several years in Chinese air defense identification zones, said Vasily Kashin, an expert on Russia-Chinese relations at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
While commercial flights often identify themselves in China’s identification zones, the U.S. military has made a point not to, he added. China has repeatedly objected to the practice.
The commander of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation, Sergei Kolybash, said Russia had protested to South Korea over what it called South Korea’s dangerous actions during the incident, Russian news agency Interfax reported.
Russia has boosted its military capabilities in recent years in the Far East, where it has increasingly deployed S-400 air-defense and Bastion antiship systems in its eastern territories.
Moscow has also slowly been boosting military coordination with Beijing and invited the Chinese military to participate in Russia’s annual strategic military exercises last year.
The military agreement between Moscow and Beijing has yet to be fully hashed out. Officials have said that it could involve the two countries sharing radar data from air-defense and missile systems.
Tuesday’s incident was aimed at testing South Korean defense systems, said Oh Yeon-goon, a retired South Korean air force general.
—Dasl Yoon in Seoul and Jeremy Page in Beijing contributed to this article.
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8