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Central Asia: Shanghai Cooperation Organization Makes Military Debut

On 6 August, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will hold its first-ever military exercises, with troops from five of the six member states participating. Experts say the maneuvers are an indication of the importance China attaches to the SCO in its bid to counter the growing U.S. military presence in Central Asia.

Prague, 5 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- From 6-12 August, troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China, and Russia will participate in war games on Kazakh and Chinese territory.

The overall goal of the two stages of the Interaction 2003 exercises is to implement the provisions of the 2001 Shanghai Convention on the joint struggle against terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, the Tajik Asia-Plus news agency reported last week.

The first stage of the exercises begins tomorrow (6 August) in the Taldy-Qorghan region of Kazakhstan's Almaty Oblast and runs through 11 August. According to the Kazakh Defense Ministry, the exercises will begin near the town of Ush-Aral and will involve a Russian infantry unit, a unit of Kyrgyz paratroopers belonging to the Kyrgyz Intelligence Agency, and Kazakh aviation forces.

There will be no Chinese troops taking part in this phase. Tajik military experts will be present as observers.

A Caspian News Agency report said the initial phase will be used to practice isolating and eliminating terrorist groups.

The second stage of the exercises is due to start in China's Xinjiang Province on 11 August. The specific location will be the outskirts of the town of Inyin, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders on Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan and is home to some 15 million-20 million Muslim Uighurs. Only Chinese and Kyrgyz troops are expected to participate in this phase of the exercises. Here soldiers will destroy a simulated terrorist camp and practice liberating hostages.

The location does not appear coincidental. The nature of the exercises reflects growing concerns about Islamic extremism in the region. Officials in China and Kyrgyzstan have expressed fears that Uighur separatists in the East Turkestan Islamic Movement are now joining forces with other banned groups, like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU is suspected of fighting alongside Taliban and Al-Qaeda troops in Afghanistan as well as a series of terrorist attacks in Central Asia.

Moscow has accused ethnic Uighur separatists of fighting with the Chechens in their protracted war with Russia, and of seeking to annex parts of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as well as separating Xinjiang from China.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization began life in 1996 as the "Shanghai Five," when Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan signed an agreement on cooperating to resolve disputes along the former Sino-Soviet border. Five years later, in 2001, Uzbekistan joined the group, and its focus was expanded under the Shanghai Convention to encompass joint actions against terrorism, separatism, and drug trafficking.

As concerns about terrorism mounted, SCO member states concluded it was a problem better solved as a whole, rather than individually. At a SCO summit in June 2002, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov announced a regional antiterrorism agency that would be part of the SCO.

Interaction 2003 is part of a series of joint military maneuvers taking place this summer in Central Asia, and will mark the second time China has conducted military maneuvers with a foreign country. The first time was with Kyrgyzstan last summer. Uzbekistan, which gives priority to military cooperation with the U.S., is not participating.

China believes the SCO has played a positive role in deepening regional security cooperation. But defense specialists in Kazakhstan and in London have questioned whether and how Kazakhstan and China will benefit from participating in Interaction 2003.

Faizolla Orazay, who is president of the Private International University in Almaty, suggested that neither country will benefit militarily. "What will those exercises give [Kazakhstan]? The main thing is, what will the general task of those exercises be? The Chinese army is self-sufficient without any kind of joint exercises at all. What are these exercises, I wonder -- are they really military, or political?" Orazay said.

Alex Vatanka is the editor of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security-assessment publication based in London. He also said he is unsure about the military value of the exercises for the Chinese. He suggested that Beijing is more interested in the political aspect of military cooperation with the Central Asian states and advertising what China can offer as a partner that the U.S. cannot.

"I think what we need to emphasize here is the political importance of cooperation within the SCO, and military cooperation is a point where China has been able to grab the attention of the Central Asian states, and it is therefore [that] we see this significant emphasis on military cooperation," Vatanka said. "It is more or less about how China could appeal to the Central Asian states, not so much what China could get militarily from having joint exercises. So there is a political dimension here too, which is far more important for China than the actual specific benefits from having joint military exercises."

Other experts believe that China's main interest in the exercises is to promote coordinated measures against Uighur separatists in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Murat Auezov, a former Kazakh ambassador to China, noted that China is conducting a major crackdown on Uighur terrorists.

"China is pushing forward the issue of the fight against terrorists in order to make it possible to impose more pressure over Uighurs in Xinjiang," Auezov said. China considers Uighurs separatists, "and uses all means possible to strengthen its presence in Central Asia, and especially in Kazakhstan."

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)