China is using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to “enhance its ability to project power beyond its borders,” according to a recent report issued by the U.S.-China Economic & Security Commission.
According to the report, that power includes military training exercises outside of China’s borders and practice in “air-ground combat operations… long-distance mobilization, counter-terrorism missions, stability maintenance operations, and conventional warfare.”
The report also goes on to say that the SCO is helping Beijing to “gain experience establishing the diplomatic relationships and arrangements necessary to support power projection,” including an active military presence in Central Asia.
Two themes deserve greater context. The first is a look at the particular characteristics of the countries in which China is operating militarily through the SCO. Do these countries in fact offer the kind of boilerplate experience from which China can “replicate diplomatic and military efforts and expand them to other parts of the globe in the future,” as the report claims?
And second, what are the implications of putting China’s People’s Armed Police into the mix with foreign forces as China takes part in military exercises with SCO nations on those nations’ turf?
The Unique Nature of the SCO
When the Soviet Union officially fell on Christmas Day of 1991, and the country broke up into a new configuration of Russia and 14 former Soviet republics, the impact on China was seismic. Not only was the fundamental form of communist political ideology and power on which China operates being dismantled in its region of origin; three of those Soviet republics that became new nations now sat on China’s northwest border, and all were Muslim-majority countries.
Those three newly sovereign states – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, in order from south to north – presented an immediate and vexing problem for Beijing. While those new nations had previously been tightly controlled by Moscow, they were now independent of Soviet control and could chart their own course. That course could have included active and material support for separatism, extremism, and terrorism in China’s own Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.
The Uyghur minority has posed a challenge to China’s hunger for domestic control and stability for decades. Uyghurs are keenly aware that the annexation of their ancestral lands by China did not come about peacefully or willingly. Chinese leaders feared that the Uyghurs, much closer in ethnicity to the peoples of the newly independent eastern republics of the former Soviet Union, would seek and be rewarded with aid from the new nations as those countries sought to reassert not only their regional authority, but also their pecking order within Central Asia.
Reeling already from the effect of mass demonstrations that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in June 1989, and the worldwide condemnation and sanctions that followed, the Chinese Communist Party found itself dealing not only with a threat to its existence, but also with the impact and significance of a new geopolitical map.
This is the background that eventually led in 2001 to the formation of the SCO. The SCO was itself the successor of the Shanghai Five, which was established in 1996 among China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, as The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz explained in her September analysis of the SCO’s “Shanghai Spirit.”
One wonders, therefore, if the diplomatic side of China’s relationship with its Muslim neighbors is a template, as the USCC report suggests, for any region other than the mostly poorer nations slightly farther west along the Eurasian continent, most of whom have accepted Chinese investment in their infrastructure and development. Could it be that the cooperation China enjoys with these nations is predicated more on its financial influence than on its military cooperation?
The Role of the People’s Armed Police
Indeed, China’s security cooperation with its Central Asian neighbors includes the disturbing prospect of introducing its notorious People’s Armed Police into the mix.
USCC’s report identifies six SCO exercises held outside of China involving Chinese forces since 2016. Of those six, three were held by the People’s Armed Police (PAP).
In 2019, one set of those exercises included an 11-day joint counterterrorism training exercise between the PAP and the Russian National Guard. The exercise, which was aimed at “improving combat skills and deepening cooperation,” included “tactical coordination training, coordinated air-to-ground strikes, training for gaining control of hijacked trains, and search and suppression operations.”
The PAP is fundamentally a paramilitary force that protects the domestic security interests of the CCP, often at the cost of the already few rights of the everyday citizen. In general, it is safe to say that the PAP is not well-tolerated by a majority of Chinese, who both fear the PAP’s right to make arbitrary arrests and mock its members for their often brutish, thuggish tactics.
Those old enough to remember will never forget the People’s Armed Police for their part in the massacre that took place in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, and equally for its role in enforcing the six months of martial law in Beijing that followed. Those who are younger need only reference the PAP’s methods of suppressing thousands of labor and other protests throughout China over the years. As Joel Wuthnow writes, high-profile cases include the protests in Tibet in 2008, which resulted in the use of deadly force by the PAP. Earlier, in December 2005, 20 Chinese protesters died when the PAP attempted to quell a riot in Shanwei, Guangdong province. “Such incidents have not only marred China’s international image, but have also raised questions about training and professionalism,” Wuthnow said.
Notwithstanding that cultures can change and organizations can mature, it is still unlikely that the PAP has transformed itself into a modern machine of measured domestic security management. Indeed, the PAP’s professionalism was always a problem. Identifiable by their license plates, PAP cars and their drivers have been accused of aggressive, entitled road behavior on the streets of Beijing and other large cities for decades. Those same vehicles have also long graced the parking lots of the nation’s karaoke clubs, a wildly lucrative industry in which PAP personnel have anecdotally grown rich through the exploitation of rural young women acting as “servers” and beyond. Anecdotal and visual evidence also points to collaboration between PAP assets and the interests of Chinese gangs.
The “new” PAP, supposedly retrained, used in peacekeeping missions, and now under the direct control of the Central Military Commission and therefore of Xi Jinping himself, is meant to have gotten past its reputation as a heavy-handed, often deadly force of repression.
But memories are long, and the use of this force begs several rhetorical questions. Why would China use the PAP as an agent of diplomacy? Why would China think that an armed unit with a history of killing unarmed protesters could have a positive effect on China’s international image?
As China projects its power in its regional neighborhood and beyond, it often seems to attempt to mirror international models. Is China trying to transform the PAP into a Chinese version of the British SAS or the American Delta Force, arguably the world’s most effective rapid response special forces units engaging in direct action, covert reconnaissance, and counterterrorism?
If so, it still has a way to go to restore its reputation. The PAP has put down protests by farmers and factory workers, fighting to save their land and improve their working conditions. It has ordered live fire on unarmed protesters. It has acted as enforcer after a massacre. By its inclusion in China’s power projection throughout Central Asia, it sends a message that agents of repression and suppression will eventually win the day. Combined with China’s intolerance of its own Muslim minority – which, not coincidentally, is a major motivating factor in Chinese engagements in the region, as noted above – and nations are likely to get the message, and to file it away for future reference.