The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding its biggest joint military exercises ever, as Russia seeks to strengthen ties with China in the wake of its collapsing relations with Europe and the United States. The scale of the exercises suggests that the organization, which had lately seemed to be focusing more on economic and law enforcement cooperation in Central Asia, may be again emphasizing its military component.
This year’s iteration of the annual Peace Mission exercises are scheduled for August 24 to 29 in China’s Inner Mongolia province. About 7,000 troops are slated to take part: mostly from China, but also from SCO members Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. (Uzbekistan, while an SCO member, traditionally declines to participate in the group’s military drills.)
The size of the Peace Mission drills has declined in recent years, but Chinese officials say this is the largest SCO drill ever: “It’s the first time that so many troops and so much weaponry have been deployed in joint drills under the SCO aegis,” Wang Ning, chief director of the drills and deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told the China Daily newspaper.
It’s not clear what has prompted the revival of large-scale SCO military exercises, but it comes at an opportune time for Russia. As Moscow faces sanctions and censure from the U.S. and European countries as a result of its assertive policy in Ukraine, the Kremlin is eager to show that it doesn’t need the West.
China, Russia’s giant neighbor to the southeast, is a key element in its search for non-Western partners. In May, President Vladimir Putin with great fanfare signed an agreement to export natural gas to China; the deal had been in the works for years but Russia appears to have been moved to compromise on price for the sake of boosting ties with Beijing. But military cooperation is an even more salient symbol for Russia, and the Russian press has recently seen a resurgence in interest in the SCO. One commentary in August from the state news agency RIA Novosti called the organization “A New Alternative To The West.”
“In the current situation, connected with the events around Ukraine, any Russia-Chinese exercises will certainly appear as a signal to the West,” said Russian foreign affairs expert Fyodor Lukyanov in an interview with the website Svobodnaya Pressa. “And neither China nor Russia is trying to dispel that impression. It’s in the interests of both governments for the West to think that China and Russia are getting closer politically and militarily.”
Nevertheless, Lukyanov added, there are practical limits to military cooperation between China and Russia. China is not interested in military alliances in general, and its major security interests don’t necessarily coincide with Russia’s. (One exception may be Central Asia, the SCO’s area of responsibility, where both Beijing and Moscow are worried about a possible spillover of instability from Afghanistan following the U.S. and NATO pullout this year.)
The scenario of Peace Mission 2014 also suggests Beijing’s influence more than Moscow’s, focusing as it does on Beijing’s fear of “separatism.” The exercise scenario “involves a separatist organization in a certain country, supported by an international terrorist organization, plotting terrorist incidents and hatching a coup plot to divide the country,” reported Xinhua, citing Wang. Chinese commentators also sought to play down the geopolitical element of the exercises; in a commentary titled “Anti-terrorism exercise has nothing to do with America” People’s Daily Online noted that “The joint drill is not targeted against any individual country…. the SCO fixed the schedule of this drill long before tensions grew between Russia and the West over Ukraine.”
While large-scale military exercises were the norm for the SCO in the early years of its founding, lately the emphasis has been elsewhere. China, the dominant power in the SCO, has increasingly used the organization as a tool for facilitating its investments in Central Asia, particularly in energy and infrastructure. Beijing also has used the SCO to enlist Central Asian cooperation in suppressing Uyghur political groups.
In addition to a revival of the military element of the SCO, there has been renewed discussion of the possible expansion of the group beyond the six members it has had since its founding. The SCO’s annual summit will be held in September in Dushanbe, and ahead of the meeting member states’ foreign ministers reportedly finalized an agreement on protocols for accepting new members. Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan are all observers, and India, Iran, and Pakistan in particular have been outspoken for many years about their desire to join as full members.
But in July, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested that Mongolia may in fact be the next member. “We have received a message from the Mongolian prime minister on the occasion [of the 13th anniversary of the SCO’s founding]. Although we have not scrutinized the contents of this message yet, we regard it as a good signal,” he added. “Ten years have passed, and it is time to consider preparations for granting Mongolia a status of a full-fledged member of the SCO.
Mongolia, however, has long been lukewarm about full membership, wary of becoming too dependent on its superpower neighbors Russia and China. “The SCO is perceived in Ulaanbaatar as an ‘authoritarian club’ whose members main concern is their own regime security,” wrote Mendee Jargalsaikhan, a Mongolian analyst and former defense attaché to Washington, in a 2012 paper on Mongolia and the SCO. SCO membership also could diminish Mongolia’s foreign policy independence, exemplified by its “third neighbor” strategy of courting allies other than China and Russia, Mendee wrote. “Joining the SCO could … weaken both Mongolia’s domestic democratization efforts, and its international image with the European Union or the United States.”
And the fact that the upcoming SCO exercises are taking place in Inner Mongolia, where the Chinese central government has sought to minimize ethnic Mongolian cultural and political expression, no doubt adds to Mongolia’s suspicion of the organization.
When Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj was asked by Russian journalists about the prospect of becoming a full member he demurred, and pointedly omitted any mention of military cooperation. “We have the desire to participate in economic and infrastructure projects in the framework of the SCO and we view with respect the proposal from the SCO to raise the level of our participation in this organization.”
Russia has effectively been China’s junior partner in the SCO, and so has tended to be skeptical of the organization’s role in Central Asian security, instead favoring the group it leads, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). Moscow’s initiatives with respect to post-2014 Central Asian security have been implemented through the CSTO, but recent months have also seen Russian attempts to increase coordination and cooperation between the SCO and CSTO. It’s possible that Russia’s need for China as an ally will trump its previous worries about Beijing and the SCO’s activities in Central Asia, and that Moscow will accede to the group’s growing clout in Central Asia.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in foreign affairs and international relations.