Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a clear message on Tuesday: They are ready to test the limits of their budding military partnership in the Pacific.
Here’s what we know: Early on Tuesday, both South Korea and Japan scrambled fighters to respond to Russian and Chinese military aircraft flying a joint sortie through a region.
Things escalated dramatically. According to South Korea, two Chinese H-6 bombers passed into Seoul’s Air Defense Identification Zone, joined by two Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff claimed they fired warning shots at a Russian A-50 command and control military aircraft that twice violated their airspace.
Japan’s Ministry of Defense backed up South Korea’s claims, saying the A-50 intruded on Japan’s airspace while the Russian and Chinese bombers flew around Japan. (The island area flown over in the incident is claimed by South Korea and Japan.)
Moscow disputes Seoul’s account, claiming that South Korean military jets dangerously intercepted two of its bombers over neutral waters. Later on Tuesday, after reports of the midair confrontations emerged, the Russian military said its aircraft had taken part in a “joint patrol” with Chinese long-range aircraft.
So what, exactly, were Russia and China up to with this exercise?
For starters, this was a test of a nascent military alliance between Moscow and Beijing. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the Russian Ministry of Defense said the operation was the “first joint air patrol using long-range aircraft in the Asia-Pacific region” by Russian and Chinese forces.
The joint patrols were conducted “in order to deepen and develop Russian-Chinese relations as part of the comprehensive partnership [between Moscow and Beijing], further increasing the level of interaction between the armed forces of the two countries, improving their ability to conduct joint actions, and strengthening global strategic stability,” the statement said.
The Russian-Chinese military partnership has already been flexing its muscles in the region. Last year, Russia kicked off what it described as the largest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union, joined by joined by thousands of troops from China and Mongolia.
The drills, called Vostok 2018, kicked off during a bilateral meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the far eastern city of Vladivostok. Seven time zones ahead of Moscow, the city is Russia’s base for projecting power in the Asia-Pacific Region, and Beijing has in recent years sent warships to the strategic port to participate in joint naval exercises. Putin also hosts an annual forum there meant to spotlight his country’s economic pivot to Asia.
Tuesday’s fly-by, however, raises the stakes for the Russian-Chinese partnership.
While the two countries have no mutual defense treaty—as the US has with Japan and with NATO countries—the exercises could be a test of what militaries refer to as “interoperability,” or the ability of the Chinese and Russian militaries to operate together on a practical level.
Moscow and Beijing have been steadily ramping up what he described as a “quasi-alliance,” said Artyom Lukin, an international relations scholar at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok. He described the incident as one designed to showcase their shared power, “sending a message to Tokyo, Seoul and Washington.”
“Frankly speaking, I was surprised when I read this news,” Lukin said. “I didn’t expect this action would be so bold and provocative.”
Putin enjoys a special relationship with Xi, and last month very publicly broadcast support for Beijing in its ongoing economic confrontation with Washington. Now, as the fallout continues from the midair fracas, the world will be watching to see whether Xi and Putin stand shoulder to shoulder in a military confrontation.