Air Confrontation Between Four Countries Distresses East Asia

Air Confrontation Between Four Countries Distresses East Asia
People’s Liberation Army, China

While the world is still dealing with the impacts of the pandemic, Russian and Chinese militaries seem to be growing closer than ever. On December 22nd, 2020, Russian and Chinese bombers flew a joint patrol mission over an area of the Western Pacific dangerously close to the disputed territories between China, South Korea, and Japan. This mission, proudly announced by the Russian Ministry of Defence on media platforms like Twitter, succeeds an initial one in 2019 which had already shaken up peace in East Asia.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the Sino-Russian joint patrol flight was “carried out to deepen and develop the Russian-Chinese relations of the comprehensive partnership, further increase the level of interaction between the armed forces of the two countries, improve their capabilities to conduct joint action, and strengthen global strategic stability.”  This statement meets the agreement of the Ministry of Defence of the PRC, which states such a partnership is essential for improving the joint operational capabilities of the two air forces and ultimately levelling up the military.

While joint partnerships between the militaries and air forces of different countries are not unusual, it is instead the current global situation that has Japan and South Korea worried of a Sino-Russian military alliance. In fact, Japan and South Korea share a common partner – the US – currently weakened by its intra-national political instability and domestic health dilemma. The recent 2021 military mobilization prospects announced by China’s military on the official website of China’s Ministry of Defence are soon to become a regional and international concern.  


First 2019 Mission

In July 2019, two Russian Tu-95 bombers, an unarmed Russian A-50 command and control plane, and two Chinese H-6 bombers led a military exercise as part of a joint patrol over the Western Pacific. Particularly, this occurred in the air zone above the Dokdo Islands (so-called Takeshima Islands in Japan), which Japan and South Korea both claim as their own.

As an area already disputed between these countries, the presence of Russian and Chinese air forces was deemed problematic. South Korea’s military sent out 30 warnings to the Russian A-50 without receiving response. It later teamed up with Tokyo scrambling fighter jets to intercept the Sino-Russian patrol, ending up with South Korean warplanes firing “360 warning shots ahead of the Russian aircraft, 80 during the first violation and 280 during the second, using 20mm weapons”, as reported by CNN.

This incident was later denied by the Kremlin in a series of statements and created diplomatic turmoil between the Sino-Russian and Japan-South Korean factions. Japan withholds important data that would prove the Russian military at fault, however, the conclusion of this incident remains blurred in history.

Source: CNN

Second 2020 Stand-Off

The blurred ending to the 2019 mission is what could have allowed this to happen once again in December 22nd 2020. Reuters reported that four Chinese warplanes and 15 Russian aircraft entered the Korea Air Defence Identification Zone (KADIZ), according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

This time, the South Korean military promptly dispatched air force fighters as a strategic measure but also confirmed that the Chinese military had informed South Korea that its planes were carrying out routine training prior to their entrance into the KADIZ. Nevertheless, the Foreign Ministry of South Korea also contacted China and Russia to warn them these shall not become recurrent exercises in the area.

This 2nd joint aerial strategic patrol was confirmed in an official announcement released by the Ministry of National Defence of the PRC and the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. According to the announcement, four H-6K Chinese bombers and (only) two Tu-95 Russian bombers had conducted joint patrol over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, but that they observed “the relevant provisions of international law and did not enter the airspace of other countries”. The announcement also stated that China and Russia are aiming to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership and enhance the level of coordination and joint operational capabilities of their militaries.

Furthermore, the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed the mission was part of an annual recurrence between China and Russia and was not meant to be of an alarming nature to third parties.

One question, then, remains: Why are Sino-Russian joint patrols repeatedly taking the same routes knowing this would anger their neighbours?


2020 Defence Budget (US$)US$ 66,3 billionUS$ 228 billion
Military Expenditure as % of GDP4,3%1,9%
Active Personnel
Reserve Personnel
Available for Military
771 000
2 000 000
34 765 736
2 300 000
8 000 000
385 821 101
Land Forces:
Armored Fighting Vehicles
Total Artillery
Self-Propelled Artillery
Rocket Artillery
20 050
27 335
14 557
5 955
4 032
7 760
6 000
9 726
1 710
1 770
Air Forces:
Total Aircraft
Fighter Aircraft
Multirole Aircraft
Attack Aircraft
4 441
1 505
4 182
1 150
1 170
Total naval
Aircraft carriers
China-Russia Military 2019 Statistics. (Source: SIPRI; CSIS;

Analysing data is a useful method in understanding the military power of both China and Russia, which may be the most important factor concerning Japan and South Korea.

According to SIPRI’s data, Russia and China are among the top 5 military spenders in the world. As of 2019, China ranked 2nd, just below the United States, while Russia ranked 4th on the list of global military powers.

A table on the right has gathered data from different sources concerning these countries’ defence budget and military details. However, it is important to mention that it remains difficult to verify this data as most sources report them in different ways. Both CSIS and SIPRI tend to argue that there may be a gap between the actual versus the officially reported data.

Indeed, official sources including Chinese sources state that the National Defence Budget for China in 2020 was US$178.2 billion. As shown in the column chart below, however, SIPRI estimates the actual budget goes beyond US$ 200 billion. This number is not unusual considering the amount of personnel employed by Chinese military authorities.

Source: CSIS; SIPRI.

CSIS believes that, over the past year, the impact of COVID-19 may have amended the resources employed in military spending. Studies show that inflation does play a role when looking at the overall trends of defence spending, which makes seriously question the probability of SIPRI’s estimated values for 2020.

Nonetheless, it is true that President Xi Jinping remains committed to his vision of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by 2035. In fact, these mid-air incidents prove COVID-19 did not stop China or Russia pursuing their military reform plans. If, by any chance, the current pandemic did impact their budget, then these powers may be simply halving costs by working together through joint missions and exercises.

What may be worrying Japan and South Korea is that a stronger military partnership may also imply stronger nuclear cooperation. With the unresolved situation in North Korea, and China not necessarily taking a pro or con stance on Pyongyang, a united Sino-Russian front might make neighbours feel endangered by any upcoming nuclear threat. Russia brings with it a heavy bag of nuclear knowledge after the Cold War and nowadays, the Russians store a total number of 6490 warheads and 1600 deployed warheads, more than the US. Also, it was the Soviet Union who created the Tsar Bomba, the biggest bomb in the world with a blast yield of 50 megatons of TNT. China is also building solid nuclear bases and has already been engaged in testing atomic and hydrogen devices since 1964. Data regarding China’s stock of accumulated and deployed warheads is uncertain.

As “cold” conflicts continue, having become the most common means of war (e.g. US-China Trade War), however we cannot overlook other areas in which Russia and China are certainly affirming themselves as lead powers. Among these includes research on outer space and Antarctica, which will inevitably become increasingly relevant for the future of international politics and mankind alike.

In the meantime, China’s military growth is continuing in 2021 with the latest reforms.


President of China and Chairman of the Military Commission of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping, has signed the “Central Military Commission Order No. 1 of 2021” on January 4th. The order invites the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) to uphold the mission of building a strong Chinese military with relevant training and more focus on combat preparedness for the new year.

The 2021 Military Training and Mobilization Order encourages:

  1. the improvement of war-centred training under real combat conditions to implement combat effectiveness
  2. the enhancement of research on warfare and combat-related issues
  3. the improvement of joint training exercises for joint operations across military corps, with joint commanding training listed as a priority, to enhance joint operational capabilities.
  4. research on relevant science and technology that could help build avant-garde weaponry for higher-level training methods
  5. the reform of training management and supervision to improve regulations, coordination of training plans and exercises

The media believes that these decisions may be related to the Taiwan situation and that they have been set to contain possible major incidents related to Taiwan’s strive for independence. Particularly, this comes as a preparation for eventual emergencies resulting from a change of US leadership and modus operandi through which the US may approach the Taiwan issue in the near future. The US would be allegedly violating the “One China” principle with the upcoming “U.S.-Taiwan Political and Military Dialogue“.


The alleged lack of transparency is nourishing concerns from both the Japanese and South Korean sides, especially because of their difficulty to understand other powers’ need to conduct frequent joint patrols in the Sea of Japan. These countries, like others in East Asia, are questioning the rationale behind the growing Sino-Russian military partnership in a moment where the world is weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic and where even the thought of war should be non-existent.

Minor powers in East Asia feel endangered by the very firm stance held by China and Russia against issues that will become heated again in 2021. Among these, Hong Kong and Taiwan are key concerns, as Hong Kongers keep being welcomed as eligible nationals in the UK and as new President of the United States Joe Biden pursues communication with Taiwan.

Cold diplomatic ties could indeed be in the horizon, and the military involvement of China and Russia implies that other big powers in the West may prepare to balance militarily speaking. Ultimately, silence among states and a lack of clear communication remains the root cause of potential conflict and war yet in 2021.   

A few questions, then, remain unanswered:

  • How will Biden’s diplomacy transform the scenario in East Asia?
  • Will lack of transparency and low trust undermine future political and economic relations between China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea?
  • Where do ethics lie in a country’s right to grow militarily? What are the unspoken rules being challenged by China and Russia?

Further Reading

AlJazeera: “Taiwan reports large incursion by China’s air force”

Fox Business: “For wars of the future, Pentagon looks to distant past: The B-52”

Bloomberg: “China Adopts Law Letting Coast Guard Fire on Foreign Vessels”

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Air Confrontation Between…

by The New Global Order time to read: 7 min