While the World has been engaged in other parts of Asia; West, South and South East, Central Asia has been relatively in the background over the past few years. Yet China in concert with Russia is slowly making inroads into the region. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was founded in Shanghai on 15 June 2001 by six nations, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Together the countries comprise 25 percent of the population of the globe at approximately 1.5 billion; of course, most of this comes from China’s large people base of 1.3 billion. Therefore, that means the balance of approximately 220 million belongs to rest of the SCO countries. Leaving out Russia’s over 140 million; the Central Asian states have a populace of mere 80 million. The people numbers asymmetry is thus a major factor in the SCO, which will provide China a considerable advantage in the years ahead.
The SCO is also becoming China’s principal vehicle of entry into Central Asia. Nothing would perhaps indicate this trend better than holding of a major exercise, Peace Mission 2007 from 9 to 17 August, culminating simultaneously with the SCO Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The Chinese contingent the second largest comprised of 1,700 People’s Liberation Army personnel, 46 aircraft, G-9 and Mi-17 helicopters, G-7A fighters, IL-76 transports and JH-7A “Flying Leopard” fighter-bombers. While Russia was the major contributor, Central Asian states contributed just company and platoon sized contingents.
The focus of the exercise was touted as a counter terrorist drill. The aim of Peace Mission 2007 however appears to be much larger, a signal to the global community of a new alignment emerging in Asia, focused on the energy chain of Central Asia, a politically sensitive but security deficient region, on the flanks of other sensitivities of the West, Iran and Afghanistan
As per China Daily, “SCO cooperation over security has gone beyond issues of regional disarmament and borders, for it includes how to deal with non-traditional threats such as terrorists, secessionist forces and extremist religious groups”. The reaction from Chinese Xingjian dissidents was characteristically vitriolic. Writing on behalf of the Uighur natives of Xingjian, Alim Seytoff insists that the aim of Peace Mission 2007 is clearly to suppress the Uighurs’ of Xingjian referred as East Turkistan and warn democratic forces in Central Asia not to challenge the authoritarian regimes. The collective efforts of the governments of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were deemed to ensure that any uprising by the Uighur population of these states is suppressed and Peace Mission 2007 was a part of this overall effort claims Alim writing in Asia Times Online.
When correlated to the stated purpose of the joint anti-terrorist maneuvers, “Peace Mission 2007” by Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, State Councilor and Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, to “demonstrate determination of the SCO member states in the fight against three evil forces: extremism, terrorism and separatism, as well as the common desire to ensure security and stability in the region, stimulate the general development and prosperity,” the linkage could be more evident.
Another salient facet was, Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xingjian-Uighur Autonomous Area. It was one of the two main locations of conduct of the Exercise with the firing range of the Russian Army’s 34th Motorized Rifle Division near Chebarkul town, about 50 miles (80 km) west of Chelyabinsk, in Russia’s Volga-Urals Military District being the other. The movement of forces from one area to another also demonstrated high level of strategic mobility and quick reaction capability within the region by the military forces.
While Russia bore the entire expenditure for the exercises of almost 2 million Roubles ($ 80 million) for Peace Mission 2007, the Chinese could gainfully employ the occasion to spread their military and political influence in Central Asia. Suppressing the militancy in Xingjian is a priority for the Chinese and they are well aware of the need for regional cooperation in Central Asia to achieve this aim. SCO has been an ideal medium and Peace Mission 2007 a tool for expansion in the region so effectively used by Beijing to achieve these dual aims. So are China watchers taking note?