Since 2003, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has organized a number of “anti-terrorist exercises” that have involved their armed forces and law enforcement personnel. These drills serve multiple purposes, including improving the proficiency of the members’ security forces, demonstrating new skills, learning about other SCO forces and their capabilities, reassuring the organization’s Central Asian members about their security requirements, providing opportunities to cultivate bilateral contacts with other SCO members, and signaling to outside powers, especially the U.S., that Central Asia is a zone of special security concern for Moscow and Beijing.
BACKGROUND: On May 6, China, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan held their “Tianshan 2” counter-terrorist exercises in China’s ethnically tense Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The three countries’ security forces conducted joint operations against supposed anti-PRC terrorists based in the border region. In late August 2006, the governments of China and Kazakhstan conducted similar counter-terrorism maneuvers called “Tianshan 1.”
Most SCO exercises, like most of the organization’s other projects, typically involve only two or three member countries even when they are described as occurring within the SCO. In October 2002, China and Kyrgyzstan conducted the first bilateral anti-terror exercise within the SCO framework, involving joint border operations by hundreds of troops. In August 2010, the law enforcement and internal security forces of Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan held a week-long exercise in Russia’s Saratov Region that they labeled as “SCO antiterrorism drills” despite the absence of representation from the other four members.
Some of these SCO exercises do involve more members. In August 2003, all the SCO militaries, with the exception of Uzbekistan’s armed forces, participated in “Cooperation 2003”, which included more than 1,000 troops who engaged in several counterterrorism scenarios in eastern Kazakhstan and China’s Xinjiang region. In early March 2006, Uzbekistan affirmed its elevated commitment to the SCO by hosting a multilateral exercise, “East-Antiterror-2006”, under the organization’s auspices.
The most prominent SCO exercises have been those that have occurred since 2005 under the “Peace Mission” moniker. The first of these “Peace Mission” exercises occurred on August 18-25, 2005. Although SCO members sent observers, this maneuver was primarily a Russian-Chinese event. The two armed forces conducted a three-phased operation that began in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East and then moved to China’s Shandong Peninsula, where the participants conducted land maneuvers followed by amphibious ones. Whereas China supplied most of the troops (8,000 versus 2,000), Russia provided the most sophisticated equipment, including Russian Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers as well as some 140 warships.
Peace Mission 2007, which occurred from August 9-17 of that year, transpired more clearly within the SCO framework. Unlike in 2005, the armed forces of all six full SCO members participated on this occasion, with almost 6,500 troops and 80 aircraft engaged in the two phases, including 2,000 troops from Russia and 1,600 from China. Peace Mission 2007 began on August 9 in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Area, and ended on August 17, with a live-fire exercise at the Russian military training range near Chelyabinsk, in Russia’s Volga-Urals Military District. Unlike Peace Mission 2005, but like Peace Mission 2010, this 2007 exercise was better oriented toward suppressing a major Islamist insurgency (such as occurred in Chechnya) or popular rebellion (such as occurred at Tiananmen Square in 1989 or Andijan in 2005), presumably in one of the landlocked Central Asian countries.
Peace Mission 2009 took place from July 22-27 of that year. Unlike in 2007, only Russian and Chinese troops participated on this occasion. However, as in 2005, the other SCO members received invitations to send military observers to Peace Mission 2009. The drills began with a single day of political-military consultations among senior Russian and Chinese defense personnel in the Russian Far East’s major city of Khabarovsk. The operational phases of the exercise took place in northeast China, at the Taonan training base in China's Shenyang Military Area Command. They then spent three days jointly planning and organizing for a combined anti-terrorist campaign. About 1,300 military personnel from each country participated in some phase of the exercise, much less than in previous years.
The most recent major SCO exercise, “Peace Mission 2010,” occurred from September 9-25. All the full member states of the SCO contributed at least one military unit to the exercise except Uzbekistan, which pulled out at that last minute. The exercise included 5,000 troops, 300 major combat pieces, and over 50 combat planes and helicopters.
IMPLICATIONS: These SCO exercises have multiple purposes. They enhance the ability of the members’ armed forces to deter and suppress regional terrorism as well as another popular rebellion (which the SCO governments would invariably characterize as due to foreign terrorist movement), such as the ones that occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Andijan in 2005. The drills are designed to improve the operational and tactical proficiency of the participating militaries and increase their interoperability. SCO defense and security representatives have cited advantages in exercising with foreign countries to learn new tactics, techniques, and procedures.
The maneuvers also aim to reassure Central Asian leaders that China and Russia will help them manage their security challenges. Eurasia’s precarious regional security situation, combined with the SCO’s failure to intervene in Kyrgyzstan to suppress the June 2010 riots, alarmed many Central Asians about whether they can confidently rely on the SCO to protect them against external and domestic security threats. The drills provide an opportunity for the SCO militaries to show off their capabilities, including to each other. Demonstrating military prowess is a time-honored tactic for reassuring friends and deterring adversaries. By persuading the Central Asian governments that they can depend on Beijing and Moscow to protect them, the exercises also weaken Western influence in the region by helping persuade their SCO allies that they need not turn to Washington or Brussels for major security assistance.
Furthermore, the exercises help the SCO militaries learn more about each other’s evolving capabilities and continue the original mission of the Shanghai process, which was to promote arms control and confidence-building measures between China and its newly independent neighbors that had been part of the USSR. Collaboration through multinational exercises is a form of confidence building among governments. The SCO countries have adopted a series of arms control measures along their joint borders, including advanced notification of large military exercises in their vicinity. More generally, Russia’s backing for the SCO demonstrates to Chinese policy makers that Moscow recognizes China’s legitimate security role in Central Asia.
Moreover, in terms of political signals to third parties the maneuvers affirm to the U.S. and other extra-regional countries that Russia and China consider Central Asia as lying within their overlapping zones of security responsibility. Central Asian governments also generally appear to prefer working within the SCO, which is not dominated by a single country like the CSTO or the Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasian institutions in which Russia is the primary player. Despite the possible emergence of a Sino-Russian condominium, China’s balancing presence presumably reduces fears of external subordination and gives them more room for maneuver. For example, with low-key Chinese support, Uzbek officials have been leading the effort to resist expanding the SCO’s military functions. Conversely, it is easier for the Central Asian governments to deal with the Chinese colossus through the SCO rather than directly.
CONCLUSIONS: Many accords adopted under SCO auspices consist primarily of bilateral deals, with the organization merely providing a convenient venue for negotiations. China and Russia currently devote more attention to their relations with individual Central Asian states than to their SCO-mediated multilateral ties, though they strive to give their bilateral activities a multilateral gloss. Another impediment to the SCO’s development has been the serious rivalries and disputes among member governments. For example, Uzbekistan has repeatedly opposed Russian efforts to expand the SCO’s military functions, a dispute which also weakens the CSTO.AUTHOR’S BIO: Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. He is the author, among other works, of Kazakhstan and the New International Politics of Eurasia (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, 2008).