Over the course of the Peace Missions, the PLA has demonstrated improvements in logistics, command and control, and more sophisticated tactics. The live-fire drills of Peace Mission 2007 allowed Chinese armed forces to practice deploying and supporting a large force far from mainland China. The exercise also required the PLA to maintain logistics over long distances and cooperation across communication frequencies and signals for coordinated action. During Peace Mission 2010, the PLA dispatched a logistics group under the command of General Ma Xiaotian. The PLA transported 1,000 tons of materiel and six contingents of almost 1,000 troops. PLA logisticians had to find efficient methods to unload and reload train carriages when they passed from Chinese to Kazakh railways due to a difference in railway gauges.
The Peace Missions also exhibited many “firsts” for the Chinese military. It was during Peace Mission 2010 that the PLA air force flew its first cross-border mission. It was also the first time it simulated long-range air strikes. Four H-6 bombers and two J-10 fighter jets left air bases in China, flew more than 1,000 km, refueled mid-air, and rehearsed bombing ground targets in Kazakhstan. During Peace Mission 2012, PLA ground forces traveled overland from Atushi through Kyrgyzstan while a PLA aviation group flew from Kashi in Xinjiang.
The Peace Missions also allow for extended military diplomacy between the PLA and its Russian and Central Asian counterparts. Peace Mission 2007 was the first time for Chinese forces to engage in exercises in a foreign country. Seeking to demonstrate transparency, in the lead up to the exercise, the PRC Ministry of Defense’s Foreign Affairs Office invited 100 reporters from 48 foreign media organizations to visit Beijing Military Region. In June 2007, at a SCO defense ministers meeting, Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan made it a point to discuss bilateral relations, particularly with Uzbekistan. By January 2007, Colonel-General Moltenskoy, Deputy Commander of Russian Ground Forces, had already visited China twice for preparatory consultations. PLA soldiers also learned about relevant laws and Russian culture, reading books with titles such as A Guide for Troops to Join in Exercise in Russia and A Brief Introduction about Russia.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Finally, the Peace Missions permit the PLA to demonstrate its capabilities. During Peace Mission 2010, the PLA showed network-centric capabilities that the Russian Armed Forces lacked. The dedicated fighter aircraft for precision strikes flew from bases in relatively nearby Western China, but still chose to conduct mid-air refueling operations. In addition, all hardware used during the exercise was domestically produced. Unlike Russia and Kazakhstan, China chose to display forces equipped with new weapons systems.
Organizational Decisions Belie True Counterterrorist Capability
There are also practical considerations that undermine any trajectory toward true counterterrorist capabilities. First, the length and size of Peace Missions change dramatically between each exercise, which indicate their reactionary nature. The Peace Missions have steadily declined in size over time, which could indicate more realistic counterterrorist scenarios, but other factors seem more likely to be at play. From a practical point of view, cost constraints imposed by the 2008 global economic recession could account for the varied scale.
Peace Mission 2010 marked a resurgence in terms of size and length. It lasted fifteen days, a week longer than Peace Mission 2007. Reasons potentially include the recovery of global economic health, the reemergence of the Taliban as a real force, continued instability in Kyrgyzstan, and violent unrest in Chechnya and Xinjiang. A prominent Peace Mission also buoyed the confidence of Central Asian regimes in China and Russia’s commitment to regional security after the SCO’s non-intervention in Kyrgyzstan despite Bishkek’s appeal to suppress the Osh riots that summer.
Second, the Peace Missions do not institutionalize cooperation or tactical knowledge achieved through the exercises. The SCO lacks a collective command structure like NATO and is divided by internal competing interests. These two factors alone pose significant obstacles to the SCO members ever fighting as an integrated unit. China and Russia still share very little intelligence beyond SCO security exchanges. Most importantly, the participating “joint forces” concept is purely nominal. There is no consistency from Peace Mission to Peace Mission in the units or personnel involved, so knowledge is not institutionalized.
Chinese Counterterrorism Found Wanting?
Chinese state news media have continued to issue warnings about terrorism as the story runs its course. On November 1, China’s domestic security chief, Meng Jiangzhu, met with RATS chairman Zhang Xinfeng in Tashkent to report on the Tiananmen “terrorist” attack and to urge tighter cooperation between SCO members. Human rights experts are alarmed at the potential backlash in Xinjiang, with signs already of tightened security and reports of police randomly checking Uyghur IDs in the region. Will anything change because of the Tiananmen incident?
If the attack in Tiananmen was in fact an act of separatist violence connected to ETIM, then Beijing should redesign the Peace Missions to align more closely with a true counterterrorist scenario that reflects the facts on the ground. Assaults comprising thousands of troops and air power will not serve any true counterterrorist utility in Xinjiang. This is all, of course, assuming that China is in fact serious about counterterrorism and the leadership in Beijing actually believes transnational terrorist networks are fueling unrest in Xinjiang.
Kendrick Kuo is a China specialist pursuing graduate studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, D.C.