Learning from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s ‘Peace Mission-2010’ Exercise

Julie Boland
Julie Boland Federal Executive Fellow, The Brookings Institution

October 29, 2010

While much of the U.S. foreign and security policy community were preoccupied last month with Secretary Gates’ visit to Asia amid the diplomatic row between Japan and China over events and disputed territory in the East China Sea, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conducted the latest in its series of joint security training exercises in Central Asia. Yawn, right? Another small exercise by a loose collection of states that have nothing in common? Maybe not. The SCO exercise deserves attention from Washington because, while it was characterized by the organization as merely counterterrorist in nature, it also reflected multilateral tensions and national aspirations that Washington should keep in mind as the United States pursues partnerships in the region.

On September 8, Secretary of State Clinton outlined the Obama administration’s approach to international relations in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. Secretary Clinton noted that the United States seeks “to build a network of alliances and partnerships, regional organizations and global institutions, that is durable and dynamic enough to help us meet today’s challenges…[it] can make it easier to identify common interests and convert them to common action.”  Clinton said earlier this year, in a speech to the East-West Center, that “the failure of the United States not to participate [in regional organizations] demonstrates a lack of respect and a willingness to engage…And as we’ve also seen new organizations, including the…Shanghai Cooperation Organization, we hope that we will be able to participate actively in many of those.”

But what is notable is what played out the very day after the speech and then over the course of the next two weeks, as the SCO conducted its “Peace Mission-2010” exercises from Sept. 9-25. The planning and operational maneuvers, which took place at Kazakhstan’s Matybulak training area, reportedly included over 5,000 personnel and various equipment from SCO members China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. 

Three issues should draw U.S. decision makers’ attention about Peace Mission-2010: 

1. Peace Mission-2010 demonstrated that Beijing and its partners are indeed interested in using the SCO to enhance its force capabilities, counterterrorist and otherwise.

Since the SCO was created in 2001, some commentators have assessed that China’s primary focus in the SCO is on expanding its economic opportunities in Central Asia, while Russia’s is on security-related issues. This is clearly in error. While China undoubtedly pursues economic interests in the region, any assessment that it’s not as interested in the security side of the SCO needs to be revisited. Chinese airplanes in the exercise—four bombers and two fighter jets, according to Chinese press—took off from within China and flew to the training range in Kazakhstan. These cross-border missions were the first by the Chinese air force, according to the deputy commander of the Chinese forces participating in Peace Mission-2010. Even though the destination was within the aircrafts’ range, the deputy commander told reporters that they took the opportunity to practice refueling them in the air “to ensure a complete success of their missions.” A mission “more relevant for possible use against India in the event of a military conflict,” noted a former Indian official writing in regional press about the exercise.

In addition, Chinese military spokesmen characterized the experience of transporting nearly 1,000 troops plus many tons of materials to Kazakhstan by rail as “valuable experience in large-scale movements,” noting that the difference in rail gauge between the two countries required practice in changing trains and unloading and loading equipment. 

Of course, that’s not to say that the other members are not interested in using the SCO exercises to increase their security forces’ experience, too. Peace Mission-2010 also included the first integration of nighttime maneuvers into a joint SCO exercise, according to Chinese television, undoubtedly useful to each member. Tajikistan’s interest in the exercise no doubt was underscored by the violent attacks it has suffered over the last month from radical Islamists, and Kyrgyzstan, too, experienced severe domestic turmoil when its president was ousted earlier this year. Other SCO members have used the Peace Mission exercises to demonstrate capabilities difficult to characterize as counterterrorist-related. Russia used a previous such exercise in 2007 to showcase and announce the return of its heavy bomber force to regular patrols.

2. Kazakhstan hosted Peace Mission-2010—and NATO’s Steppe Eagle-2010 multilateral peacekeeping exercise just a month earlier—vividly demonstrating that its balancing act in the region continues.

Kazakhstan has come a long way since SCO’s Peace Mission-2007 exercise, when it forced Chinese troops to take a 10,000 kilometer or so trek the long way around the country to reach the Russian exercise grounds in Chelyabinsk, claiming there was no legal provision for foreign troops to be allowed to traverse through the country. For last month’s SCO exercise, 1,000 troops each from China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, and 150 each from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan drove, flew, or marched over the Matybulak training facilities in Kazakhstan, according to Kazakhstan’s defense ministry.

Despite stepping up to its turn as host for the SCO’s multilateral security exercise, Kazakhstan is clearly intent on maintaining its multi-vector foreign policy. Steppe Eagle-2010 included troops from Kazakhstan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Kazakhstan hosted the exercise in 2006, 2007, and 2009, too.  This bodes well for the United States, especially given Kazakhstan’s agreement earlier this year to give overflight rights for US troops and weapons heading to Afghanistan.

3. Uzbekistan was the lone SCO member to opt out of the exercise, suggesting Tashkent continues to be reluctant to concede security planning to other SCO members and is sensitive to how such exercises could be viewed by the West.

Uzbekistan was the last country to join the organization, transforming it from the Shanghai Five to the six-member SCO in 2001, but it has maintained a love-hate relationship with it ever since.  Tashkent has been willing to demonstrate its regional leadership by playing host to the SCO’s standing counterterrorist committee (the Regional Anti-Terror Structure, or RATS) and to SCO heads of state summits, but reluctant to consistently endorse other SCO activities—like multilateral security exercises.

Tashkent did not participate in SCO security exercises until 2006, when it hosted the SCO members on its territory for the East Anti-Terror-2006 exercise. By then, its relationship with Washington had deteriorated after the United States criticized the harsh government crackdown on the May 2005 Andijon riots and Tashkent had evicted US troops based in Karshi-Khanabad.  However, Uzbekistan did not remain completely in the SCO fold for long and only contributed staff officer observers to SCO’s Peace Mission-2007 and Peace Mission-2009 exercises.  Last year, Uzbekistan’s parliament ratified the SCO’s 2007 agreement to cooperate on security exercises, but limited Tashkent’s participation to observer because of national legislation prohibiting sending military contingents to other countries, according to Kazakhstan Today. And now, for Peace Mission-2010, it did not participate “in any quality,” according to the Russian Ground Forces spokesman for the event.

It appears that Washington can rest assured that Tashkent’s current logistical support for Operation Enduring Freedom will not require a stamp of approval from the SCO at large—but should still be cautious of Uzbekistan’s sometimes fickle sense of loyalty.

So what are the bottom line takeaways? Peace Mission-2010 showed a growing security focused edge to the SCO, but it also reflected some of the organization’s political and military tensions, which should be considered as Washington seeks partners in the region.  It demonstrated the SCO’s coherent and continuing concern about the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism—something the United States could build on as it encourages engagement with the region. Defense Secretary Gates this month took steps to reinvigorate U.S.-China military ties and his anticipated visit to Beijing next year could be one opportunity to discuss converging concerns between the United States and the SCO. Washington’s awareness of the convergent—and divergent—concerns among SCO members would be useful to make any future partnerships with the SCO and its individual members both realistic and fruitful.