By Oleg Salimov (08/14/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The Central Asian countries are taking part in an antiterrorist exercise in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous region. The military training ground “Zhurihe” in the administrative district Hohhot will host military personnel from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia, arriving to conduct antiterrorist exercises code-named “Peaceful Mission – 2014.” The military drills are planned for August 24-29, 2014 as part of “The prospects of cooperation between Ministries of Defense of Shanghai Cooperation Organization members for 2014-2015 years.”
The military exercise in the autonomous region historically inhabited by ethnic Mongols and with close proximity to the restive Xinjiang indicates the Chinese government’s anxiety over the spread of separatist ideas in the Northwestern part of the country. In particular, when announcing the joint antiterrorist exercise during a press conference on June 26, a representative of China’s Ministry of Defense, Yan Yuizun, declared that the drills are aimed at preventing and controlling terrorism, extremism, and separatism as the main evils of the modern world.
The total number of servicemen taking part in the military drills reaches 7,000. They mostly arrive to China and concentrate in the city of Kashgar, a hotbed of Uighur rebellion and frequent bloodshed. While Beijing risks unnecessary provocations if it conducts military drills in the heart of the Uighur region, it certainly sends out a strong message by selecting Kashgar as a transit and logistic hub for foreign military units. The concentrated grouping of heavily armed military forces and equipment serves the purpose of intimidating the local Uighur population and at the same time assures the Han Chinese population, a frequent target of attacks by Uighur militants, of the central government’s ability to protect them.
Also, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, termed Southern Mongolia by local opposition activists, was deliberately selected for the antiterrorist exercise. Official Beijing is interested in conducting war games in a region with a historical and ethnical inclination towards mainland Mongolia as a continuation of its absorption policy and demonstration of power. Inner Mongolia was a site of violent clashes with police and the Chinese army in May 2011, as reported by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations in the region. The increased coal exploration in Inner Mongolia led to unexpected unrest among mostly cattle-breading inhabitants in an otherwise politically submissive territory.
Central Asian republics arrive to the military drills with a baggage of their own. Currently, the most strenuous relationship in the SCO’s present antiterrorist exercise is that between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. For these republics, the joint exercise is complicated by the recent territorial disputes which involve continuous shoot-outs, casualties, mutual accusations, and inability to reach a border demarcation compromise. Only a few days before sending their troops to China, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan had yet another incident of lethal crossfire at the border with one Kyrgyz citizen killed and two arrested by a Tajik border patrol. Negotiations over the status of the Vorukh enclave in Kyrgyzstan, populated by ethnic Tajiks and a place of frequent ethnic clashes, are also stalled as the sides are unable to agree on the details of transportation communications between Vorukh and Tajikistan. Experiencing low-brewing separatist moods due to ethnical compositions and mutual territorial claims, the two republics enter the antiterrorist exercise with conflicting objectives mutual disaffection.
While sending its military units to China, Kazakhstan hosts military drills of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) code-named “Interaction – 2014” on August 18-22 at the military training ground “Spassk,” involving up to 3,000 servicemen, 200 units of heavy armored vehicles and equipment, and 30 air force units. Russia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan also participate in the CSTO military drills alongside the SCO’s antiterrorist exercise. The purpose of this exercise is to practice an efficient response to external threats against CSTO members. As observed, SCO and CSTO have considerably increased their military activity in light of recent international tensions over Ukraine and the Middle East.
The latest large-scale SCO antiterrorist exercises, “Peaceful Mission – 2012,” took place in Tajikistan’s “Chorukhdaron” military training ground in June 2012. Notably, Uzbekistan an SCO member, refrained from participating in previous and current “Peaceful Mission” exercises providing no explanations. At the same time, Uzbekistan conducted a similar yet smaller antiterrorist exercise with Kyrgyzstan in March 2014, coordination by SCO’s executive committee.
For Beijing, the antiterrorist exercise is an important means for demonstrating to its subjects, such as Uighurs and ethnic Mongols, its ability to maintain and enforce territorial integrity, subordination, and order. Aside from the improvement of the People’s Liberation Army’s professional skills, the large-scale exercise aims to maintain its control over the general Chinese population by demonstrating power and military might.