Military analysts will be closely watching next month’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization anti-terrorist exercise, “Peace Mission 2007.” The drill will be the SCO’s largest joint exercise in its six-year history. Contingents from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan will take part, along with their country’s defense ministers. About 6,500 troops and 80 aircraft will participate.
The exercise, taking place August 8-17, will begin at the Russian Army’s 34th Motorized Rifle Division near Chebarkul, about 50 miles west of Chelyabinsk in the Volga-Urals Military District. In a pointed gesture sure not to be overlooked by China’s restive Uighur population, the exercise will later transfer to Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
About 2,000 Russian and 1,700 Chinese soldiers will be involved in the exercise, along with a number of Russian logistical support units. Aircraft deployed during the maneuvers will include six Russian Ilyushin Il-76 Candid transport planes, nine Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack jets, 14 Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopter gun ships, and 18 Mi-8 Hip helicopters. China will deploy six Il-76 aircraft, eight JH-7-A fighter-bombers, plus 16 JG-9-W and 16 Mi-17 Hip helicopters (RIA-Novosti, July 24). APCs will be used instead of tanks, while Russia and China will provide artillery support in the form of 18 122-mm and 100-mm artillery systems.
The SCO has never held a full-scale military exercise involving all member states, but Russia and China have already held several bilateral military joint exercises under the auspices of the organization, including the “Peace Mission 2005” maneuvers. Since 2002 the People’s Liberation Army has participated in 17 joint military exercises.
Qian Lihua, deputy director of China’s Ministry of Defense Foreign Affairs Office said, “This is the first time all six members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are taking part in a military exercise together. It’s also a first for the People’s Liberation Army to send so many soldiers and weapons to such a remote place” (China Central Television CCTV, July 25).
The logistics of the exercise are formidable. While many PLA contingents are being airlifted to the site, a number of Chinese troops and military equipment will arrive by rail, ending a 6,000-mile journey to Chelyabinsk on July 27.
On August 16 Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov will gather in Bishkek, then travel the following day to Urumchi to observe the final phase of the exercise. The political leaders of the SCO’s observer states — Iran, Pakistan, India, and Mongolia — will not attend the operation, but their respective military attaches accredited in Moscow will, along with 400 accredited foreign journalists.
Staging the exercise in Xinjiang offers a none-too-subtle warning to the province’s eight million Uighurs. Two years ago, during the “Peace Mission 2005” joint Russian-Chinese military exercise, Beijing pressured Moscow into agreeing to hold large-scale amphibious landings on China’s Yellow Sea coast, which many observers at the time believed was intended to send a clear message to Taiwan.
Major General Wang Haiyun, senior advisor at the Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies and a former Chinese military attaché to Russia, spoke at length about the exercises during an interview with the PLA Daily. Wang said, “With regard to the impacts and significance of the exercise, it at least should be perceived from the following two aspects: 1) It displays the firm resolve and new thinking of the SCO member states in clamping down on the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. That is to say that the member states will get united, engage in cooperation and close coordination, and take joint action to safeguard and ensure regional security and stability. 2) It goes beyond any doubt that the exercise will deter effectively the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism, generate positive influence on regional peace and stability, and make great contributions to anti-terrorism in the world” (PLA Daily, July 25).
Officer Guo Wenhui of the PLA’s General Staff concurred, “It is a practical way to improve the Chinese army’s capability to tackle terrorist threats.” According to China’s Ministry of Public Security figures, since 1995 China had more than 260 terrorist incidents in which over 160 people were killed and 440 injured (Shanghai Cooperation Organization website, July 3).
During their meeting in Bishkek, the presidents will discuss issues beyond military cooperation, including trade. While the SCO initially planned to combat Islamic extremism and other security threats in Central Asia as its goal, its agenda has since expanded its scope to include cooperation in disaster relief and trade. Energy issues are bound to be a high priority, and Russia and China diplomatically jostle for control of the region’s rich assets. Most notable, however, is how dramatically U.S. military and economic influence in Central Asia has declined in the aftermath of the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan, which both Russia and China studiously avoided criticizing. Moscow and Beijing are now reaping the fruits of their forbearance.