BACKGROUND: Peace Mission 2014 took place at Zhurihe Training Base, located in Inner Mongolia in North China. Five of the six SCO members sent troops (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, but not Uzbekistan). The war games saw a panoply of weapons used, including unmanned aerial vehicles, air-defense missiles, tanks, armored vehicles, other ground vehicles, and special operations units. A total of about 70 aircraft participated in the exercise, including fighter planes, airborne early warning aircraft, armed helicopters, and surveillance and combat drones. The combined forces practiced ground and aerial reconnaissance, joint precision strikes, integrated air-ground assaults on fortified positions, joint hostage rescue and urban assault missions, and extensive information sharing.
The exercise scenario involved an international terrorist organization supporting a separatist movement in a country, plotting coups, and aiming for violent regime change. More specifically, the scenario hypothesized that a city in an unnamed Eurasian country had become a hub of political instability and terrorist activity, and its government called on the SCO to intervene in order to resolve the issues. The fictitious separatist organization had more than 2,000 fighters armed with tanks, missiles and even light aircraft – something on the scale of ISIL rather than al-Qaeda. The active phase saw the SCO forces first using electronic warfare measures against their adversary’s communication systems. Chinese and Russian planes, helicopters, and drones then conducted air strikes against the “terrorists.” The SCO forces subsequently employed high-precision artillery attacks that destroyed the terrorists’ command centers. Finally, SCO ground forces with combined air support liberated the terrorist-occupied zones and freed their hostages.
China provided the most troops by far, including some 5,000 personnel and more than 400 combat systems. The PLA’s CH-4 unmanned combat aerial vehicle made its first appearance at the SCO exercise. The Chinese also contributed some of their most sophisticated manned aircraft such as its J-10 and J-11 fighter jets, its JH-7 fighter bombers, and its KJ-2000 airborne early warning and control aircraft. Also debuting in the SCO exercises were the WZ-10 and WZ-19 attack helicopters. The PLA’s most modern tank, the Type 9, also took part.
By contrast, less than 1,000 Russian troops participated in Peace Mission 2014, travelling by rail from Russia’s Eastern Military District. Russia also contributed 60 armored vehicles, more than 20 missile and artillery systems, more than 60 other military vehicles; eight Mi-8 AMTSh helicopter gunships; four Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes; and two IL-76 military transport planes.
Unlike last year’s Peace Mission exercise, which was an exclusively China-Russian affair, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan each sent hundreds of elite soldiers to Peace Mission 2014, making it a more genuine multinational drill. Kyrgyzstan deployed about 500 members of its Special Forces unit and a few dozen combat vehicles (including eight tanks); Kazakhstan, which often sends the largest Central Asian contingent, provided only about 300 elite airborne troops; and some 200 rapid reaction troops came from Tajikistan. As usual, Uzbekistan did not send troops to the exercises.
IMPLICATIONS: After almost a decade of joint drills, the SCO militaries have improved their ability to operate together. For example, they have enhanced the ability of the SCO armed forces to deter – and if necessary suppress – another popular rebellion or large – scale terrorist movement, such as the ones that took place in Tiananmen Square in spring 1989 and Andijan, Uzbekistan, in May 2005. Wang Xinjun, a researcher with the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, wrote at the time of Peace Mission 2013 that the war games communicate that “China and Russia will work together to firmly crack down on terrorism.”
These drills have improved the ability of the PLA to deploy forces in Central Asia. The PRC has used the maneuvers with Russia to practice coordinating large and varied forces with one of the world’s leading military powers. For example, the 2007 live-fire drills in Chelyabinsk allowed the PLA to practice deploying and supporting a large military force at a considerable distance from mainland China. The same challenge was overcome with Peace Mission 2013 when the PLA forces had to travel more than 4,000 kilometers from the PLA’s Shenyang Military Region to the Chebarkul training field in the Urals. In recent years, the PLA has developed a cadre of Russian-speaking officers to coordinate with the Russian and other SCO militaries, thereby promoting interoperability.
In justifying the Peace Mission 2014 exercises, Chinese writers pointed to the growing possibility that terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries could spill-over into Central Asia and argued that “joint military drills and other moves taken by SCO members for defense and security cooperation will send a strong deterrent signal.” This summer’s SCO war games occurred after Chinese authorities had become alarmed by the surge in Uighur domestic terrorism during the past year in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. PRC Defense ministry representatives declared that the exercise would help deter the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism by strengthening the militaries’ ability to coordinate counter-terrorism operations. Fang Fenghui, Chief of the PLA General Staff, said that, “The success of the joint drill demonstrated … their resolution to fight against the three evil forces,” maintaining that the situation around Afghanistan was becoming more complicated and “terrorists are rapidly infiltrating into Central Asia.”
Even if the SCO does not establish a military presence in Afghanistan, which became a formal SCO observer in 2012, the member states might establish some kind of barrier to try to limit the flow of Afghan-based terrorists and narco-traffickers into their countries. All the countries have security and economic interests near Afghanistan that would be threatened by renewed chaos in that country. China is aiming to construct a New Silk Road through Central Asia and deepen transportation links with Pakistan and Iran, while Russia is trying to establish an integrated economic and security bloc among the former Soviet states, some of which border Afghanistan.
From the perspective of China – something of an outsider in Central Asia and an object of popular concern in neighboring states – collaborating through SCO-wide joint military exercises can promote mutual confidence building aimed at increasing reassurance and mutual trust. Wang Ning, chief director of the Joint Directing Department of the exercise and deputy chief of the PLA general staff, said that the exercises have an “important and far-reaching political significance in strengthening mutual trust among the SCO member states.” Commenting on the most recent Peace Mission 2014, Meng Xiangqing of the PLA National Defense University argued that China had displayed a high level of trust in allowing the other SCO members to send their armed forces into its interior. Shao Yuqun of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies argued that the SCO exercises “can help build up mutual trust between the member states and thus enable the SCO to play a greater role in stabilizing the region,” including the use of non-military means.
Furthermore, the exercises provide an opportunity for Russia and China in particular to demonstrate their capabilities to external audiences. Through the exercises, which typically involve observers or combat troops from Central Asian states, Russia and China are able to underscore their ability to defend Central Asian governments from foreign or internal threats. If successful, such reassurance weakens Western influence in the region by helping persuade their SCO allies that they need not rely on NATO and the U.S. for their defense.
CONCLUSION: One should not exaggerate the significance of these SCO exercises. In principle, SCO members might come to one another’s defense in case of an external invasion, but the organization’s charter does not formally authorize collective defense operations. In practice, China would likely prove reluctant to make such a defensive commitment since Beijing has shunned formal military alliances, while the other five governments belong to the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is explicitly tasked with providing for the mutual defense of its members from external attack.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons, Retxham, via Creative Commons 3.0)