South Korea scrambled jet fighters after Chinese and Russian military aircraft entered its air defense identification zone in the south and east of the Korean Peninsula on Tuesday.
The incident followed two recent encounters between American and Chinese forces in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.
China’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that the aircraft that entered Seoul’s ADIZ were involved in an annual joint air exercise with Russia over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.
Yet these latest drills were launched on the heels of last month’s joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea on the Korean Peninsula.
To be clear, the ADIZ is not part of the country’s airspace. But neither Russia nor China gave notice that its planes were entering the zone, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Still, the incursion followed two earlier close encounters.
On Sunday, a Chinese warship crossed in front of a US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait. A week earlier, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force fighter maneuvered near an American military aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea.
A Biden administration official has cited the incidents as examples of Beijing’s increasing “aggressiveness.”
The encounters with Chinese vessels coincide with trilateral naval exercises between the coast guards of the US, Japan and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Such incidents increase the risk of miscalculations and escalation as tensions rise between Washington and Beijing over issues ranging from trade policies to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Taiwan’s security.
Beijing incursions in the region have steadily increased in recent years. So far in 2023, there have been at least 745 sorties by Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ alone, according to data from the island’s Ministry of National Defense.
At the same time, Washington is projecting a more muscular presence in the Indo-Pacific, increasing its military drills and shoring up extended deterrence with allies including South Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a news briefing on Tuesday that the encounters were not about freedom of navigation, as the US contends, but “military provocation.” He said:
The US has been sending warships and military aircraft halfway around the world to China’s doorsteps and engaging in close-in reconnaissance and show of military muscle near China’s territorial sea and airspace.
Yet encounters in the Indo-Pacific between the two rivals have become the “new and disturbing norm,” according to Zuri Linetsky, a research fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation.
“Both parties, the United States and China, are acting poorly and kind of instigating and spiraling the tensions. That has knock-on effects for regional players – in this case South Korea – but also Japan and Taiwan,” Linetsky told Voice of America.
John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, has rejected the notion that the US is partly to blame for the escalation.
“We all want to see the tensions come down,” he told VOA during a White House media briefing, arguing that Washington is working “very, very hard,” to de-escalate. But he made it clear that diplomatic outreach has so far been unreciprocated by China.
Last week, Beijing declined Washington’s request for a face-to-face meeting at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue forum in Singapore between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu.
Personal sanctions on Li that have not been lifted by the Biden administration were cited as a crucial issue.
Yet there has been progress on the diplomatic front, with high-level officials from the US State Department and the National Security Council holding private discussions with their Chinese counterparts in recent weeks.
Officials are also working to reschedule US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing that Washington canceled after it shot down a Chinese spy balloon in February.
Growing concerns over China, whose military expenditure has increased for 28 consecutive years, have helped fuel an arms race in the region.
According to military spending data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2022, countries in Asia and Oceania spent US$575 billion on defense.
That was a 2.7% increase from 2021 and a 45% increase from 2013, continuing an uninterrupted upward spiral dating back to at least 1989.
Last year, global military expenditure increased by 3.7%, according to SIPRI data, mainly fueled by a heightened threat from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tension in East Asia.
“The continuous rise in global military expenditure is a sign that we are living in an increasingly insecure world,” Nan Tian, a senior researcher with SIPRI’s Military Expenditure and Arms Production Program, said.
“States are bolstering military strength in response to a deteriorating security environment, which they do not foresee improving in the near future,” he added.
Jorge Agobian contributed to this report.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.