By timing war games to coincide with its summit, the Shanghai
Cooperation Organisation has sought to demonstrate its growing regional
clout and focus on security and counterterrorism.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is flexing its military muscles
like never before. On August 17 the leaders of the SCO watched in
Siberia the final stage of the largest yet war games of the grouping.
About 6,000 soldiers, more than 1,000 combat vehicles, and scores of
aircraft practised combat skills in ’Peace Mission-2007,’ a week-long
anti-terror drill staged in the Chelyabinsk region of Russia.
The Siberian military manoeuvres were significant in several ways. It
was for the first time that the SCO leaders attended the war games. It
was also for the first time that the militaries of all the SCO members
took part in the drill. Finally, it was for the first time that China
dispatched its troops to train abroad.
The Presidents of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and
Tajikistan travelled to the West Siberian town of Chebarkul after
meeting for an annual summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Thursday (August
16). By timing the war games to coincide with the summit, the SCO sought
to demonstrate its growing regional clout and focus on security and
The SCO leaders have repeatedly denied any plans to transform their
group into a defence alliance, but the security component of the
organisation has been expanding at breathtaking pace. Three years ago
the SCO set up a modest Regional Anti-Terror Structure (RATS) for
information exchange and joint training of national security services.
Two years later cooperation between the Defence Ministries was
institutionalised through the establishment of a Defence Ministers
Council, and earlier this year Russia circulated a draft agreement to
formalise closer military ties among the SCO states.
Beijing has now backed Moscow’s proposal to establish a partnership
between the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a
defence pact of former Soviet states, even though earlier it was
reluctant to have ties with a strictly military alliance and rejected
Moscow’s initiative to make ’Peace Mission-2007’ a joint exercise of the
SCO and CSTO. "I think the SCO and the CSTO can and must cooperate,"
Chinese Ambassador to Russia Liu Guchang said in the run-up to the
Bishkek summit. CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha had earlier
announced that the two organisations would shortly sign a protocol on
cooperation and might hold joint military training in future.
China is the only member of the SCO that does not participate in the
CSTO, described as Warsaw Pact-2, and a formalised partnership between
the two organisations would lay the basis for a defence alliance between
Russia and China in Central Asia and turn the SCO into an effective
counterweight to the U.S. and NATO in the region.
In Bishkek, the SCO leaders signed a treaty of "long-term good
neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation." The pact will serve to
further thwart the U.S. plan to create a "Greater Central Asia" that
would be off bounds to Russia and China.
A political declaration adopted in Bishkek bluntly stated that regional
security was the responsibility of the SCO and no one else. "The heads
of state think that stability and security in Central Asia can be
ensured primarily through the efforts taken by the nations of the region
on the basis of existing regional organisations," the declaration said.
The declaration was a reminder to the U.S. that the SCO’s two-year-old
demand to Washington to set a deadline for the withdrawal of its
military forces from Central Asia was still on the table. The reminder
sounded particularly loud as the SCO leaders met in Bishkek several
kilometres away from a U.S. airbase at the Kyrgyz main airport Manas. It
is the only remaining U.S. base in Central Asia after Uzbekistan closed
down another airbase the Pentagon had set up to support its anti-Taliban
operation in Afghanistan.
The Russian and Chinese leaders both called in Bishkek for closer
security cooperation within the SCO. President Vladimir Putin said the
’Peace Mission-2007’ war games were part of "a joint system of rapid
reaction to regional threats" that is being set up "to enhance the SCO
potential in the sphere of security." Intriguingly, the scenario for
’Peace Mission-2007’ - freeing a town captured by terrorists - was
reportedly based on the 2005 armed revolt in Uzbekistan, when radical
Islamists for several hours seized control of the provincial capital
Andijan. Mr. Putin called for holding war games on a regular basis in
different countries of the SCO.
Chinese President Hu Jintao also emphasised the need "to advance
security cooperation in order to ensure regional security by their own
The security agenda of the SCO appears to be extending beyond the
problems of Central Asia. Both Russia and China feel threatened by U.S.
plans to build a global missile shield to gain ultimate strategic
supremacy. The issue did not come up in public speeches in Bishkek,
except for a blistering attack from Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who
slammed the U.S. plan as "threatening not just one country, but much of
the Asian continent and SCO members." However, the U.S. anti-missile
plans were discussed at ministerial-level meetings in Bishkek ahead of
Russia’s Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said "the deployment of
elements of the U.S. global missile shield in Europe destroys the
strategic military balance," while Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei
Lavrov warned that the U.S. plan "is bound to impact on this region,
bearing in mind the list of members and observers of the SCO."
The SCO’s security concerns are also prompted by a looming U.S. defeat
in Iraq and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. "The situation
in the region and neighbouring countries remains unstable," Gen.
Baluyevsky was quoted as telling SCO military chiefs in Chinese Urumqi
ahead of the Bishkek summit. "It would be premature to speak about its
improvement. Moreover, the worst-case scenario cannot be ruled out. In
particular, it is quite possible that the situation in Afghanistan may
deteriorate even further."
Russian strategists fear that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq may trigger a
NATO fiasco in Afghanistan. If international efforts fail to stabilise
Afghanistan, violence may spread to Central Asia. "If we [SCO and CSTO]
ignore the situation in Afghanistan, we will get problems in Central
Asia for many years to come," CSTO head Bordyuzha warned. "Therefore we
are planning to exert efforts to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan."
In Bishkek the SCO leaders resolved to play a higher-profile role in
Afghanistan, whose President Hamid Karzai attended the summit as a
special guest. They agreed to convene an international conference next
year on post-conflict rehabilitation of Afghanistan and energise the
work of the SCO contact group for Afghanistan. President Putin called
for the creation of "counter-narcotics security belts" around
Afghanistan and for "belts of financial security" to disrupt financing
of the drug trade in Afghanistan.
The increased focus on security issues in the SCO has met with
controversial responses from SCO observer states. While Iran is stepping
up its bid to gain full membership in the SCO, with President
Ahmadinejad attending a second SCO summit in Bishkek, India has sought
to distance itself from the SCO political agenda. Official sources in
Delhi told TheHindu last week that "India would like to steer clear of
aligning with this six-nation grouping in military, strategic a nd
political terms," but "wants to be a hands-on participant, especially in
improving trade, economic and cultural linkages."
Reaching out to India’s concerns, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov
called for "intensifying work with the observers who are unhappy that
their participation [in the SCO] is confined to ceremonial presence at
"The observer status should not be an obstacle to full-fledged
involvement in practical SCO projects, for example in energy and
transport," Mr. Lavrov said, specifically mentioning the proposal to
form a SCO Energy Club. The Energy Club plan gained momentum in Bishkek,
with the SCO instituting regular meetings of the group’s Energy
Ministers. "I am convinced that the unfolding energy dialogue,
integration of our national energy concepts, and the creation of the
Energy Club will set out priorities for further cooperation," Mr. Putin
said in his speech in Bishkek.
Apart from the SCO members, the Energy Club is bound to include Iran and
Turkmenistan. President Ahmadinejad offered to host a conference of SCO
Energy Ministers in Iran, while Turkmenistan, whose President Gurbanguli
Berdymukhamedov attended the SCO summit for the first time, has recently
signed agreements to build new pipelines to Russia and China.
India emphasised its interest in energy cooperation with the SCO by
dispatching Petroleum Minister Murli Deora to Bishkek. At the same time
India should take note of one more signal the Bishkek summit has sent
out : the economic and security agendas have the same priority for the
SCO, and those who wish to have full-fledged cooperation with the
organisation, should go for both.