SEOUL -- South Korean aircraft fired hundreds of warning shots Tuesday after a Russian plane flew over an island chain in the Sea of Japan, a move a top South Korean official called an attempt by Moscow and Beijing to take advantage of fraught dynamics in the region.
A Russian A-50 early warning and control plane violated airspace over a chain of islands, called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, twice on Tuesday, according to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense. South Korean aircraft fired 80 warning shots the first time and 280 the second time after the Russian plane ignored warnings.
"A single action sets off a sequence of shots, so firing 360 shots was not an excessive response," a South Korean military source said.
The Russian plane was taking part in what Moscow called a joint exercise with China. Russia, which has been bolstering military ties with China through joint drills across the world, said it did not enter South Korean airspace.
In a rare move, Japan scrambled its own fighter planes after Chinese bombers approached the islands from the East China Sea, the Japanese Defense Ministry said. The bombers were joined by two other Russian planes and flew inside South Korea's air defense identification zone for an hour and a half, seemingly in formation.
Although Japan claims the South Korean-controlled islands as its own, it does not consider the area part of its air defense identification zone and normally does not scramble planes in the area.
Seoul issued a stern warning to Russia over the incident. "We view this situation extremely seriously, and we will take far stronger action if a similar incident happens again," South Korean National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong told Nikolai Patrushev, his Russian counterpart.
Tokyo confirmed the violation of airspace and condemned Moscow for the incident.
"Our understanding is that Russian military aircraft violated [the island's] airspace two times," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday. "This is completely unacceptable in light of Japan's position regarding Takeshima's ownership."
With South Korea and Japan facing a growing feud over wartime labor and trade, the flyover may have been an attempt to exert pressure on bilateral ties as well as the three-way partnership with their biggest military ally, the U.S.
"The incident was a test of South Korea's alliance with the U.S., which some say are weakening, and to widen rifts in our three-way security partnership with Japan," a top South Korean official said.
The trilateral partnership has been strained since last year, when North Korea adopted a more conciliatory approach. The U.S. and South Korea have since canceled major military exercises, replacing them with shorter and smaller drills this year. But the North is still unhappy and sees them as potential negotiating card in denuclearization talks.
A South Korean vessel also locked a fire control radar on a Japanese patrol plane late last year, which dealt a blow to their security partnership.