Saturday, September 19, 2009

SCO Prepares for Exercise; China Stretches Its Legs


SCO Prepares for Exercise; China Stretches Its Legs


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) bills its upcoming Peace Mission 2007 as a counterterrorism exercise, but analysts call it practice for putting down an uprising.

Scheduled to run Aug. 9-17 in Chelyabinsk in Russia’s Ural Mountains, the exercise will involve 4,700 Russian troops, 1,600 Chinese troops and contingents from the other SCO members: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

SCO officials say Peace Mission 2007 will see the largest-ever contingent of Chinese troops on Russian soil for an exercise. The Chinese forces will include six Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 airlifters and an Army aviation unit with 32 Mi-17 and Z-9 helicopters.

The exercise is far “too big to be a counterterrorism exercise unless they are aiming to level a small town in the process,” said Christopher Brown at the American Security Council Foundation, Washington.

SCO’s stated “Three Evils” are terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.

The scenario will involve isolating and quelling a violent insurrection, according to Vassily Kashin, research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Moscow.

“In such a situation, the militaries of the smaller SCO members will control the external borders of the conflict zone, while Russian and Chinese troops will try to solve the problem. Such an operation is likely to involve thousands of personnel, warplanes, helicopters, etc.,” Kashin said.

He called this and previous joint exercises a preparation for “the worst-case scenario for Central Asia”: a large-scale uprising and civil war in one of the Central Asian republics.

“SCO members expect such a rebellion to be led by radical Islamic elements and to be at least partly supported from Afghanistan territory, possibly even by the West,” Kashin said.

The Islamist group that most concerns SCO members is the Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, he said, an international pan-Islamist political party that seeks to unite the Muslim world under Islamic law. Headquartered in London, the party is believed by many to be under Western sway.

Kashin said internal instability, especially in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, is forcing SCO members to coordinate options for a military response.

“In Uzbekistan, the wake-up call was the Andijon uprising in May 2005,” he said. “The authorities managed to suppress it rather brutally, but the social and economic problems which caused the uprising still remain.”

The exercise is also meant to cow China’s own people and send a signal about Beijing’s leadership, Brown said.

The second stage of the exercise will be conducted in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which shows China’s importance in SCO’s leadership.

“Russia in a lot of ways is playing second fiddle. After all, why move the entire operation to another country just as it is concluding? There is really no reason to conclude in Xinjiang other than as a show of strength on the part of the Chinese,” said Brown.

The troops China is sending are from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwest China, an area that shares its borders with Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Beijing began labeling the Xinjiang separatists as “terrorists,” claiming they were connected to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

Brown said the exercise will demonstrate China’s ability to project power overland within Asia.

“This is the first time that the ‘transformed’ Chinese military will have a chance to stretch its legs, especially in terms of transportation and logistics,” Brown said. “It should also be seen as cautionary warning for those Central Asian members of the SCO, especially as China and Russia continue to pursue the integration and improvement of land routes within the SCO under the guise of ‘improving trade.’”