MELBOURNE, Australia — The head of the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific has suggested that a recent Russian-Chinese air patrol may be an attempt to divide regional partners. The event resulted in warning shots fired by intercepting South Korean jets.
Speaking at a teleconference with reporters, Gen. Charles Brown said the joint air patrol involving bomber aircraft from Russia and China over the East China Sea on July 23 was “planned out ahead of time, and so we do want to pay attention to the activities that either [China], Russia — that they do in concert together.”
The patrol saw a pair of Russian Tupolev Tu-95 long-range bombers and a similar number of Chinese Xi’an H-6K bombers fly over international airspace between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, triggering interceptions by South Korean and Japanese fighter jets as they entered the air defense identification zone of both U.S. allies.
In addition, a Russian Beriev A-50 airborne early warning aircraft twice flew within 12 miles of the South Korean-administered island of Dokdo during the same morning, which resulted in South Korean fighter jets firing more than 300 rounds as warning shots during the encounter. The ownership of the island is disputed by Japan, which calls it Takeshima.
“My concern here is that it tries to drive a wedge between the longstanding partnerships and alliances we have here in the region,” Brown said of the recent activity.
Both Japan and South Korea released detailed maps showing the flight paths of the Russian and Chinese aircraft. These corroborated each other’s accounts. Both countries filed diplomatic protests with Russia over what they see as an intrusion of their respective territorial airspace.
Notably, Japan called South Korea’s response “regrettable.” Earlier this week, South Korea’s presidential office said it has terminated an intelligence deal between the two countries over Japan’s decision to downgrade South Korea’s trade status.
Also sitting in on the teleconference was U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein, who is currently visiting the Indo-Pacific region. When asked if the Air Force is carrying out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, Goldfein said the service is performing such ops in the air and sea and is working with “the U.S. Navy, in partnership with allies, partners in the region” to keep access to the global commons open.
Goldfein did not provide more details of these operations, although U.S. Air force B-1 and B-52 bombers from the Guam-based continuous bomber presence rotations have flown into the South China Sea on a number of occasions.
Pacific Air Forces has always referred to these overflights as “routine training,” and it’s unknown if they have flown within 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands and features in the South China Sea.
Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, told Defense News that while the Air Force has indeed carried out freedom of navigation operations, its bomber flights over the South China Sea are not part of the program.
Poling noted that to fall under the U.S Freedom of Navigation Program’s definition, such an operation “must have as its sole or primary mission the assertion of a specific right or challenge to a specific excessive claim.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.