WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is still trying to sort out reports of Russian violation over pacific islands claimed by both Japan and South Korea.
On Tuesday, Russian military planes twice crossed into air space about the islands, according to news reports. On both occasions, South Korean military jets confronted the aircraft and fired warning shots ahead of the plans to deter further penetration.
Japan also scrambled its defense jets. However, they did not confront the Russian aircraft.
“It’s not new that the Russians are flying routes south,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday. “What is new is that they crossed into South Korean air space.”
The alleged incursion happened over islands that are named both Dokdo and Takeshima in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea. They are occupied by South Korea but also claimed by Japan.
South Korean jets fired nearly 400 warning shots and 20 flares on Tuesday near the Russian surveillance plane.
Since the islands are claimed by Seoul and Tokyo, Japan also criticized South Korea for taking military action against the Russian plane.
A Russian military attache in Seoul told South Korean officials on the plane appeared to have “entered an unplanned area due to a device malfunction,” Yoon Do-han, South Korea’s presidential press secretary, said according to news reports.
The dispute between the two U.S. allies is often overshadowed by the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea as well as a wider Chinese aggressiveness in the region.
However, the fragile cooperation between the two one-time foes is recognized keenly by the Pentagon, as both nations are home bases to thousands of U.S. military personnel and equipment. A defense secretary on an Asian trip almost never visits one of the two nations without also visiting the other on the same trip.
“Once I make my way out there in the Pacific, that is one of the things I intend to discuss,” Esper said Wednesday.
The Russian air space violation occurred as a rising squabble between the two U.S allies in a scorching trade war fueled decades of disdain, mistrust, and rancor dating back to World War Two has worsened.
The tension was stoked on July 1 when Japan placed export restrictions on fluorinated polyimide, photoresists, and hydrogen fluoride — three key high-tech materials South Korean firms use to make semiconductors and display screens. Tokyo said it would also remove South Korea from a list of nations that face minimum trade restrictions.
On Wednesday, South Korean gas stations started refusing to refuel Japanese cars and efforts started to boycott Japanese beer and films.