In her September 17, 2014 commentary on “Intra-SCO Security Cooperation Helps Regional Stability,” Shao Yuqun describes the military exercises held under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as aimed at countering regional terrorist threats as well as realizing the SCO’s multi-dimensional potential. “Only by deepening cooperation over politics, security, economy and society,” she writes, “can it meet the members’ needs and lay a solid foundation for long-term development.” She laments that the NATO countries have generally failed to accept the SCO’s offer of regional partnership and cooperation.
During the past decade, China and its former Soviet neighbors have engaged in many small and several large joint exercises, sometimes along with Central Asian partners within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The most comprehensive joint exercises are those in the Peace Mission series. These primarily ground and air drills used to occur every other year, but now typically occur annually. Some involve only Chinese and Russian military units, while others include contingents from the Central Asian members of the SCO.
Since 2012, moreover, China and Russia have also held annual joint naval exercises. The Russian and Chinese naval partnership also encompasses reciprocal port visits, some personnel exchanges, and extensive Russian naval weapons sales to China. The two countries did conduct joint naval maneuvers before 2012, but only as a maritime component of the large Peace Mission series of military exercises that they conducted under the auspices of the SCO. The three recent maritime drills occurred independent of the SCO, a trend that looks to continue.
These drills clearly have an anti-terrorism purpose. For example, the Chinese authorities have become alarmed by the surge in Uighur domestic terrorism during the past year in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and its potential to spread elsewhere. Fang Fenghui, Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, also said that the situation around Afghanistan was becoming more complicated and “terrorists are rapidly infiltrating into Central Asia.” At the latest Peace Mission exercise, PRC Defense ministry representatives declared that the drill would help deter the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism by strengthening the militaries’ ability to coordinate counter-terrorism operations. Russian and Central Asian officials have made similar statements expressing fears about growing regional terrorism and the value of working within the SCO and other multinational mechanisms to counter it.
Yet, these SCO exercises have other purposes. For example, they are designed to improve the overall operational proficiency of the participating militaries and increase their interoperability. Engaging in major multinational military exercises is especially important for the People’s Liberation Army, which has not fought an active war in decades. Another goal of these exercises is to affirm these countries’ commitment to military cooperation as an important dimension of their evolving relationship, notwithstanding that the SCO is not a collective defense alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the Moscow-led Collective Treaty Organization. Furthermore, these exercises help their militaries learn more about the evolving capabilities of one another and promote mutual trust and reassurance among the governments, which at times have differed on various SCO-related issues.
Chinese newspapers dismissed notions that these drills are directed against the United States or other non-member countries. For example, The People’s Daily published an article at the time of last month’s Peace Mission 2014 that read: “Some western media have described this drill as ‘a Central Asian grouping that is dominated by China and Russia, aiming to challenge U.S. influence in Asia as well as the international order ruled by U.S. and its European allies’. Any reasonable analysis of this drill will expose the fact that these doubts and criticisms stand on shaky foundations.”The commentary said that the dates and plans of the drill were determined well before the Ukraine crisis, that there focus was on helping members deal with “the threat of increasingly severe territorial attacks,” that the exercises were very transparent to outside observers, and that the tasks had nothing to do with capturing “disputed islands,” a reference to the military maneuvers relating to the contested islands of the East and South China Sea.
Nonetheless, in addition to its stated goal of fighting regional terrorism, Wang Ning, deputy Chief Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, described Peace Mission 2014 as “pushing forward establishment of a fair and reasonable new international political order.” This would support the broader SCO agenda, reaffirmed at this month’s SCO heads-of-state summit, of negating U.S. global primacy, countering U.S. missile defense programs, and weakening U.S. security alliances. Moreover, the Russian media cited the Peace Mission 2014 exercise to highlight that, despite Russia’s alienation from the West and the many sanction imposed on the country due to the Ukraine conflict, Moscow still had important foreign allies.
Thus far, these exercises have not threatened U.S. security interests in Eurasia. The SCO countries do not rehearse integrated military operations to the same degree as, for instance, the United States does with its European or Asian military allies. The exercises the Russian and Chinese armed forces undertake without foreign participation are considerably larger than their joint drills with one another. But the exercises continue to grow in scope, complexity, and integration, so Shao Yuqun’s advice that NATO consider engaging with the SCO directly, at least to understand its intentions and capabilities better, bears merit.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.