Why Can't Seoul Speak up to China and Russia?

      July 25, 2019 13:30

      Russia's Defense Ministry on Wednesday denied violating Korea's airspace over the easternmost islets of Dokdo and accused Korean fighter jets of engaging in "unprofessional maneuvers" by firing warning shots. Russia went even further in media releases baldly stating that it carried out its "first joint long-range air patrol with China" in the Asia Pacific region against the alliance between South Korea, Japan and the U.S. Hong Kong media quoted a Chinese military expert as saying that the latest incursion was a "warning" to Seoul not to side with the U.S. in its conflict with China. In other words, the aerial incursions were a calculated provocation.

      Violating foreign airspace is a highly risky move that could trigger an armed response. The Soviet Union in 1983 shot down a Korean Air passenger plane that was flying over Sakhalin, killing all 269 passengers aboard. Moscow insisted the attack was necessary because its airspace had been violated. On Tuesday, a Russian military aircraft violated South Korean airspace twice.

      Around 30 warplanes from Korea, Russia and China became entangled in tense maneuvers over Dokdo for three hours, in scenes that may recall dim memories of the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars. The U.S. said it supports Korea's and Japan's responses to the aerial incursions, but it is troubling to see Washington refusing to specify whose airspace was violated since Japan maintains a spurious claim to the Korean islets.

      Yet Cheong Wa Dae seems curiously becalmed in the face of the Russian and Chinese provocations. It only rushed to denounce the Japanese response to Korea scrambling fighter jets over its own territory but was busy downplaying the Russian incursion as "equipment malfunction." When a pleasure boat carrying Korean passengers sank in Budapest, Cheong Wa Dae held several emergency meetings in the small hours, and the president dispatched officials to Budapest. But in the face of saber-rattling from China and Russia, the presidential office is mute.

      China began intruding into Korea's Air Defense Identification Zone without warning last year. First came incursions southwest of the submerged rocks of Ieo, to which China lays claim, and then the West and East Sea. Last year, Chinese airplanes intruded into the zone 140 times and maintained stubborn radio silence. The South Korean military did not even protest.

      President Moon Jae-in vowed to break down the outdated Cold War order that has pitted South Korea, the U.S. and Japan against North Korea, China and Russia. Many supporters were delighted, but South Korea's regional neighbors interpreted it as a pledge to distance itself from Washington and Tokyo. Instead of giving Seoul any brownie points, that only encouraged China and Russia to ride roughshod over it. How much longer will Moon stay silent?

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