China’s Growing Clout in the SCO: Peace Mission 2010

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 20

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) engages in a variety of military exchanges and activities with the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The most recent major exercise, "Peace Mission 2010," was held from September 9-25 in southern Kazakhstan. All the member states of the SCO (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) contributed at least one military unit to the war games except Uzbekistan, which pulled out at the last minute. The five national armed forces sent approximately 5,000 combat troops and hundreds of pieces of military hardware including tanks and armored personnel carriers as well as warplanes and helicopters (Itar-Tass, September 10).

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent a major contingent, consisting of a ground force of approximately 1,000 soldiers, an air force combat group and a logistics group, under the command of General Ma Xiaotian, PLA deputy chief of the PLA General Staff (Xinhua News Agency, September 7). For Beijing, these exercises serve a number of purposes besides enhancing the collective military capacity of the member states. These benefits include improving the proficiency of the PLA, demonstrating new combat skills, learning about other militaries and their capabilities, reassuring the Central Asian members that Beijing respects their security needs, cultivating bilateral contacts with other SCO members, and signaling to outside powers that the SCO region is a zone of special security concern for Beijing.

Peace Mission 2010

"Peace Mission 2010" consisted of three phases. The first stage involved consultations among senior political officials and military officers in Almaty. The defense ministers, general staff chiefs, and others involved discussed how to employ SCO troops to resolve emergencies as well as the global and regional security environment, defense cooperation within the SCO, and other shared interests among the member states. The Chiefs of the General Staffs then issued instructions to start the drills (Itar-Tass, September 10).

The next two phases involved combat exercises among the forces that had deployed to the Matybulak air base near Gvardeisky in Kazakhstan.  Stage two, which began on September 13, focused on joint maneuvers and drills in which the SCO contingents practiced making preparatory fire, mobilizing reserves, besieging residential areas, conducting breakouts, and using suppressing fire at night. During the main hour-long drill on September 15, the forces employed more than 1,000-armed vehicles, artillery pieces, rocket launchers, and other ground equipment as well as more than 50 military aircraft (Xinhua News Agency, September 16). Phase 3, which started on September 24, saw some live-fire drills, and then ended with a display of combat equipment from the member states, which included some of the equipment that the PLA had displayed on 60th anniversary National Day military parades in Beijing (People’s Daily Online, September 13).

Russia sent the largest amount of military equipment: some 130 tanks, self-propelled artillery systems and infantry fighting vehicles as well as over 100 trucks and about a dozen aircraft from its nearby base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, including Su-24 Fencer tactical bombers, Su-25 Frogfoot close-support aircraft and Mi-8 transport helicopters (RIA Novsoti, September 9). The PLA sent some of its most sophisticated indigenous weapons systems including T-99 tanks, H-6 strategic bombers and J-10 fighters as well as aerial tanker and early warning aircraft (Xinhua News Agency, September 19). The H-6 and the J-10 warplanes were deployed on their first foreign exercise (Beijing Review, September 21).

"Peace Mission 2010" more closely resembled the multinational 2007 exercise than the 2005 and 2009 drills, which formally occurred under the rubric of the China-Russia bilateral friendship treaty, though given a SCO gloss through the invitation to the other four full members—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—to send military observers to the exercise (UPI, July 23, 2009). In the end Uzbekistan, traditionally uneasy about Russia’s military presence in Central Asia, declined to send troops. At times, Uzbek officials have been leading the effort to resist expanding the SCO’s military functions. They have criticized SCO exercises for resembling a Soviet-era military drill that does not meet the contemporary security needs of the SCO’s Central Asian members (See "Sino-Russian Military Exercises Conceived as a Show of Unity," Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 5, 2009).

With 5,000 troops and considerable advanced military equipment, "Peace Mission 2010" was the largest SCO military exercise outside of Russian and Chinese territory. With a duration of 15 days, Peace Mission 2010 was one week longer than the previous multinational SCO war games in 2007.

Several reasons might explain the varying size and length of the exercises over time. After the enormous 2005 exercise, the two armed forces might have wanted the drills to correspond to their actual experience fighting small groups of mobile terrorists with major military units (Interfax, July 11, 2009). Russian analysts interpreted this as applying the lessons learned by Russian forces in the North Caucasus and the Chinese military in Xinjiang (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 21, 2009). Other reasons for the smaller scale of the 2007 and 2009 drills might include operational considerations (the shorter amount of time for preparation and the more genuine focus on counterterrorism), the cost constraints imposed by diminishing revenue due to the global economic recession, the desire not to alarm and the belief of Russian defense leaders of the futility of showcasing weapons for sale to China now that the Chinese have made clear their interest in purchasing only a few of Russia’s most advanced weapons systems, most of which Moscow is not eager to sell. Conversely, 2010 has grown somewhat larger due to the reviving health of the Chinese and Russian economies as well as the reviving fortunes of the regional security threats—as manifested by the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, the continued political instability in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the Islamist violence in Chechnya, Xinjiang, and some Central Asian countries—both of which have helped refocused the SCO on responding to troubling regional security trends.

Counter Regional Security Threats

The most recent exercise occurred against the backdrop of continuing ethnic-religious minority unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet, newly resurgent terrorist activity in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan [1], and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the Russian-controlled territories of the North Caucasus. Hundreds of people had died the previous year in vicious street fighting between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang, which shares a porous border with various Central Asian republics, as well as other parts of China. The Chinese authorities, who used the military to suppress the disorders after the police and other internal security forces lost control of the situation, blamed the ethnic rioting on foreign-backed terrorists seeking to create a separate state of East Turkestan [2].

The timing of this year’s exercises was especially opportune for reinforcing the confidence of the Central Asian states in particular that China and Russia would help them manage their security challenges. The deteriorating regional security situation, combined with the surprising failure of the SCO to accept the appeal of the Kyrgyz government to intervene to help suppress the June 10-14 riots in Osh—in which hundreds of people were killed and half a million ethnic Uzbeks fled from a ethnic-Kyrgyz pogrom—sparked concerns by many Central Asians over whether they can rely on the SCO to guard against emerging external and domestic security threats. In a public press conference in mid-August 2010, the deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s government, Azimbek Beknazarov, attacked the SCO because it "ignored us" when "the tragic events started … and we appealed through official channels for help" (RFE/RL, August 11). Indeed, the SCO also stood aside during the April 2010 overthrow of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, as well as during the large-scale terrorist ambush the killed 25 soldiers in Tajikistan’s mountainous Rasht region in September 2010. Chinese and Russian officials have expressed alarm at the violence and stated their diplomatic support for the governments of these states, but their main, concrete assistance has been the continued provision of bilateral economic and other non-military aid.

The importance of this particular function for the SCO, as seen by some Central Asian countries, was evident in an interview by Ikram Adyrbekov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to China, published by China Daily on September 11. Adyrbekov told Chinese readers that "Peace Mission 2010" provided a "timely" demonstration of the SCO’s contribution to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. "The capacities and financial assets of international terrorists remain sufficient enough to carry out destructive actions. Unfortunately, in their illegal activities, the terrorist and extremist organizations use the latest technology and modern propaganda methods" (China Daily, September 11). By reassuring the Central Asian governments that they can depend on Russia and China to protect them, the drills also weaken Western influence in the region by helping persuade their SCO allies that they need not rely on NATO and the United States for their defense [3].

As part of this reaffirmation process, on September 23, the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure Council pledged to assist the Kyrgyz authorities by providing them with intelligence regarding possible threats from terrorism, separatism and extremism (24.kg news agency, September 23). Still, despite their concern for stability, neither China nor Russia, the dominant states in the SCO, seem especially enthusiastic about rescuing the divided political leadership of one of the poorest and unstable SCO members, and have readily followed the lead of Kazakhstan, which has sought to exploit its chairmanship of the OSCE this year to empower that body as the lead international institution seeking to promote stability in its Kyrgyz neighbor.

Chinese representatives especially emphasized the counterterrorist dimensions of the most recent exercise. Although the member governments most often described "Peace Mission 2010" as an "anti-terrorist" exercise, their representatives and media acknowledged that the capabilities on display could be used to deal with other forms of "internal armed conflict" as well as a "mass terrorist attack" (RIA Novosti, September 9). According to Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, a senior researcher at the Chinese Navy’s Equipment Research Center, "The strategy behind the SCO anti-terror military drill is to unite countries in Central Asia and help them crack down on extremists who conduct terrorist activities through international organizations that may pose a threat to the safety of a legitimate government" (Global Times, September 26).

In principle, SCO members might come to one another’s defense in case of an external invasion, but the organization’s charter does not formally authorize collective defense operations, so all the observations regarding the SCO’s having more than half of the world’s landmass and a quarter of the world’s population are inapposite in that, lacking even a collective command structure like NATO as well as divided by various competing interests, the SCO members will never fight as an integrated unit. There is also no evident aggressor state eager to attack one of the Central Asian members, while China and Russia—both possessing nuclear weapons as well as powerful conventional forces—are sufficiently powerful to defend themselves without foreign support. In practice, China would prove reluctant to make such a defensive commitment since Beijing has shunned formal military alliances, while the other five governments belong to the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, whose explicit function is to provide for the mutual defense of its members from external attack.

Increased PLA Proficiency

The PLA forces involved in these drills have demonstrated increased proficiency over time, though it is unclear whether this improvement results from the exercises themselves or the strengthening capabilities of both sides’ conventional forces in recent years due to other initiatives. The PLA has proved especially apt at using these exercises to enhance its capabilities. For example, the 2007 live-fire drills in Chelyabinsk allowed the Chinese armed forces to practice deploying and supporting a large military force at a considerable distance from mainland China [4].

The same was perhaps even more apparent in "Peace Mission 2010," when the PLA demonstrated improved logistics, command and control, and more sophisticated weapons and tactics. Before the exercise began, the PLA forces undertook extensive pre-deployment theoretical, basic, and combined combat training, optimized for joint counterterrorist training (Xinhua News Agency, September 19). In early September, hundreds of PLA soldiers traveled by train from a PLA training military base at Zhurihe, located in North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, to Matybulak air base in Kazakhstan. The total distance covered during the week-long trip was 5,000 kilometers, after which the PLA soldiers immediately began preparing for their drills (Xinhua News Agency, September 7). One Chinese writer boasted that this represented "a big test for PLA’s comprehensive transportation capability" (Beijing Review, September 21).

According to Li Zhujun, deputy chief of the exterior liaison of the Chinese command of the military exercises, the PLA moved a total of six contingents of almost 1,000 troops, 1,000 tons of materials and additional quantities of military equipment. PLA logicians also had the opportunity to load and unload carriages as they passed from the 2.98-meter gauge used in China to the 2.87-meter gauge employed in Kazakhstan. "By improving the quality of service and logistics in various links," Li declared, "we have created conditions for the soldiers and officers to devote themselves to the exercises in high spirits and full of vitality" (Xinhua News Agency, September 22).

Perhaps the most interesting capability demonstrated by the PLA was how the Chinese Air Force conducted its first simulated long-range air strike. Four H-6 bombers and two J-10 fighter jets took off from air bases in China. They then divided into two groups that, following mid-air refueling, each rehearsed bombing ground targets in Kazakhstan. Having the capacity to conduct long-range air strikes and coordinate air-ground battle maneuvers could prove useful for attacking insurgents in Afghanistan as well as combating Indian ground forces further north. A Chinese analyst claimed that the H-6 bombers hit their target every time and that the helicopters were able to fly only 40 meters above the ground in a valley (Beijing Review, September 21).

Political Signaling

According to an interview that Russian president Dmitry Medvedev gave to Renmin Ribao on the eve of his recent visit to China from September 25-27, the SCO has "consolidated itself as an inseparable institute of security in the region" (Itar-Tass, September 26). The Xinhua News Agency heralded that, "The [Peace Mission 2010] drill advanced the cooperation in defense and security under the SCO framework to a higher level" (Xinhua News Agency, September 25). These statements appear to reflect a convergence over the broader strategic outlook of the two dominant powers of the region, Russia and China. Indeed, in terms of political signaling to third parties, especially the United States, the SCO exercises affirm to other powers that Central Asia falls within their sphere of security responsibility. Chinese officials, like those of the other states, have always stressed that the SCO neither is a military alliance nor direct against another country. On this occasion, Major General Ci Guowei, the deputy director of the PRC Defense Ministry’s foreign affairs office stressed that, "the SCO is not a military alliance, and its joint anti-terror military drill will not be aimed at or threaten any specific country" (Xinhua News Agency, September 23, 2009). Nonetheless, the maneuvers also communicate to extra-regional audiences, such as those in Washington and Brussels that Moscow and Beijing consider Central Asia as falling within their overlapping zones of security responsibility.

Balancing China

Central Asian governments also generally appear to prefer working within the SCO framework, which is not dominated by a single country like the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasian institutions without formal Chinese participation in which Russia is the primary player. In the words of an anonymous Central Asian diplomat, "With the Chinese in the room, the Russians can’t resort to their usual tricks" [5]. Despite the possible emergence of a Sino-Russian condominium, China’s balancing presence presumably reduces fears of external subordination and gives Central Asian states more room to maneuver. Conversely, another reason for the SCO’s popularity among Central Asian governments is that the organization allows them to manage China’s growing presence in their region multilaterally—backstopped by Russia—rather than deal with the China colossus directly on a bilateral basis. Chinese officials may even want to encourage this perception as a form of reassurance to Russians and Central Asians alike that China is not seeking a major security role in Eurasia despite its expanding economic presence in the former Soviet Union

Notes

1. Roman Muzalevsky, "Kyrgyz Operation Against Imu Reveals Growing Terrorist Threat," CACI Analyst (July 1, 20009): http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/5144.
2.  "Peace Mission 2010 concludes, opens new page for SCO cooperation," Xinhua, September 25, 2010, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2010-09/25/c_13529321.htm.
3. Roger N. McDermott, The Rising Dragon: SCO Peace Mission 2007 (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation, October, 2007): 3, http://www.jamestown.org/uploads/media/Jamestown-McDermottRisingDragon.pdf.
4. Ibid.
5. Cited in Martha Brill Olcott, Central Asia’s Second Chance (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005): 198.