It might seem strange that Kazakhs, the ancestors of nomadic warriors, are joining in military maneuvers with forces from China, a country that built a wall to keep such nomads out. More recently, the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan housed nuclear weapons intended, in great part, to repel any Chinese invasion of the USSR.
Those days are gone, however. And a new era of cooperation has begun. China and Kazakhstan now share common ground in the battle against what China calls the "three evils" -- separatism, extremism, and terrorism.
Fighting the three evils is a priority for the security-minded Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
This week's Sino-Kazakh exercises are being held under the SCO aegis, as were exercises China held with Kyrgyzstan in 2002. Quiet Start
The "Tian-Shan-1-2006" exercises got under way in Kazakhstan's eastern Almaty region today and should move across the border to Yining, a city in China's western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Officials on both sides of the frontier are refusing to release any troop figures. In fact, it is difficult to get any detailed information about the event. RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contacted the Foreign and Defense ministries about the exercises, but neither had any information.
Islam Dosmailuly, a spokesman for Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), told RFE/RL he wasn't even sure if the exercises would happen.
"I don't know if they will [take place] or not," Dosmailuly said. "I'm waiting for information. If [the information] gets here, we'll certainly comment on it. But, for now, I have no information."
The Security Committee's press service said the exercises involve forces from its border unit, the Kazakh Interior Ministry, and the Emergency Situations Ministry. China's Xinhua news agency reported that the Chinese side will have "an unspecified number of personnel" from law enforcement and security services participating. The two sides will practice containing and neutralizing hypothetical terrorist forces and freeing hostages. Simply Fighting Terrorism?
Kazakhstan has arrested suspects and charged them with terrorism or membership of extremists groups, and Kazakh officials claim to have thwarted terrorist plots in the past. But to date, there have not been any acts of terrorism committed on Kazakh soil.
But Konstantin Syroyezhkin, a senior analyst at Kazakhstan's Strategic Studies and Research Institute, said there are practical reasons for holding exercises with China.
"You know, there are many common threats and these are [well-known] already," Syroyezhkin said. "There is drug trafficking, immigration, and religious extremism and political extremism. There are a number of threats. And these are counterterrorism exercises, [against] international terrorism. Why should they not hold them? Look, there's a mess in Afghanistan; there must be some mutual cooperation in that matter. And anyway, it is not the first time they have held such exercises. Last year, or before last year, it was organized as a planned maneuver, there is nothing suspicious about that."
Kazakhstan has held similar multinational exercises in counterterrorism in the past -- with NATO forces under that alliance's Partnership For Peace program, and with forces from the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Beijing's Interest
The exercises are arguably more in line with China's interest -- something seemingly borne out by the choice of venue for the exercises in China. Yining was the scene of rioting in 1997 between Han Chinese and ethnic minority Uyghurs that Chinese officials say killed more than 100 people.
Uyghurs have inhabited the area now called Xinjiang for centuries. Uyghurs are Turkic Muslims who have fought numerous battles for independence against Chinese imperial dynasties. Once, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Uyghurs even helped keep the "Son Of Heaven" on his throne.
One of the first signs of the decay of previous Chinese dynasties was the loss of areas in the west, where ethnic Uyghurs live. More recently, the country's Communist leadership is preempting such a possibility by sending millions of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, where there is now near parity with the Uyghurs.
Maisy Weicherding is a Central Asia researcher for Amnesty International. She said she was skeptical of Beijing's official characterization of some Uyghurs.
Chinese Uyghurs in Xinjiang (epa file photo)
"Although the Chinese government likes to depict and allege that a lot of the Uyghurs that leave Xinjiang and take refuge in Central Asia are terrorists or have links to terrorist or extremist or separatist movements, we have actually never seen any evidence to prove that men who have been put on trial in China for terrorism or separatism offenses are actually guilty of these offenses," Weicherding said.
China has launched several highly publicized campaigns against separatism in Xinjiang since the Yining riots nearly a decade ago.
Corinna-Barabera Francis of Amnesty International questioned the timing, noting that there appears to be little threat of terrorism in China.
"There in fact have not been any terrorist incidents that we know of [in China], and in fact the Chinese government itself has said that there had not been any terrorist incidents for quite a few years."
Kazakhstan is not merely looking east this week to ready itself for possible terrorist threats. In the west, along its Caspian coast, Kazakh military forces are joining other CSTO troops for the "Rubezh-2006" maneuvers, which run from August 23 to 27.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)
Soldiers conducting the first-ever SCO joint antiterrorism exercises, held in Kazakhstan in August 2003 (TASS)
NATO'S EVIL TWIN? At an August 3 briefing at RFE/RL's Washington,D.C., office, Central Asia experts Richard Weitz and Daniel Kimmage discussed the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral body that comprises Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In addition, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan have observer status in the organization.
Listen to the entire briefing (about 75 minutes):
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U.S. Wary Of Shanghai Grouping
Unified Message Emerges From Shanghai Summit
Shanghai Cooperation Organization Mulls Expansion
China-Russia Bloc Challenges U.S. In Region
THE COMPLETE STORY: Click on the icon to view a dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.