On Monday, Seoul sent jets after Chinese warplanes that entered disputed airspace, in a sign of unresolved tensions just days after the two countries met to reset troubled relations.
Five Chinese military aircraft were detected flying into the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) from southwest of Ieo Island at around 10am on Monday, reported local newspaper the Korea Times, quoting South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Seoul responded to the jets by sending F-15K and KF-16 fighters to monitor the Chinese aircraft, which left after two hours and 40 minutes, said the JCS.
“Our fighter planes took normal tactical measures, identifying the models of the Chinese planes and flying aerial surveillance until they left,” the South Korean military said, as quoted by Reuters.
China’s deployment into the KADIZ came just two days after South Korean President Moon Jae-in returned from a four-day state visit to China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders to discuss issues such as the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) that has been deployed in South Korea.
“We talked with the Chinese side over a hotline and it said the operation was part of a routine exercise,” said a JCS official, according to local outlet Yonhap News. “We are analyzing its exact intention.”
However, the Wall Street Journal cites Rodger Baker–senior analyst at Stratfor (a geopolitical intelligence firm)–as saying the flyover was a stark message from Beijing to Seoul, given that the jets flew over key disputed territory.
“The flyover appeared to suggest that disagreements between China and South Korea over defense issues remain fairly strong,” Mr. Baker said.
The recent deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea angered China, who fears the system’s powerful radar could look deep into the country and threaten its security, says the South China Morning Post. South Korea also declared it was imposing a new round of economic sanctions on North Korea, whose sole major ally is China.
The submerged rock, known as Ieo Island, sits in disputed territory in the South China Sea. Ieo Island is of particular contention between South Korea and China, and it serves as the foundation for a South Korean research station. China also has a dispute with Japan over the East China Sea Islands known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and the Senkaku Islands in Japan. Taiwan has also laid claim to the islands.