Asian Bloc Leaders Watch First-Ever Joint War Games

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - Leaders of Russia, China and four Central Asian republics on Friday observed the climax of the first-ever joint military exercise involving all member states of a bloc widely seen as an instrument used by Moscow and Beijing to counter Western influence in the region.

More than 6,000 troops from the six countries are participating in "Peace Mission 2007," a drill involving aircraft, armored vehicles and heavy weaponry.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) maneuver began in China's restive far west earlier this month and ends on Friday near the south-central Russian city of Chelyabinsk, where the forces will simulate the capture of a town held by "terrorists."

SCO officials have dismissed perceptions that the countries are flexing their muscles to send a message to the West.

The exercise "is not aimed at any third party," Xinhua news agency quoted Liang Guanglie, chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army as telling a press conference earlier. "It does not concern the interest of any third party nor make threats to any country." Russian officials have made similar statements in the past about SCO military exercises.

The SCO groups Russia, China, and the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, countries that account for one-quarter of the world's population.

Leaders of the six nations on Thursday ended an SCO summit in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek by issuing a declaration calling for multipolarity in international relations -- guarded criticism of the dominant role the United States plays in world affairs.

In another pointed reference to U.S. and NATO involvement in the region, the "Bishkek Declaration" also said "stability and security in Central Asia can be ensured primarily by the regional states themselves, through existing regional associations."

"Year by year, the SCO is becoming a more substantial factor in securing safety in the region," Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the summit, highlighting the organization's increasing focus on security.

The Russian leader called for "strengthening the multipolar international system" and he said attempts to resolve global and regional problems "unilaterally" -- another veiled reference to the U.S. -- would not succeed, RIA Novosti reported.

'Imposing an alien way of life on us'

Dr. Kirill Nourzhanov, a specialist in Central Asia at the Australian National University, said Friday the main reason SCO began to make statements targeting the U.S. and its allies in 2005 was "the perceived interference of the West in internal affairs of the SCO countries, which are all run by traditionalist patrimonial regimes."

Political upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005 prompted suspicions in Moscow that the U.S. was encouraging revolutions to topple pro-Russian autocrats. Washington, while calling for greater democratization, denied involvement, saying the revolutions were home-grown reactions to despotic rule.

Nourzhanov told Cybercast News Service the SCO member states regard the revolutions as a security threat.

"Minimizing the risk of violent regime change sponsored by the U.S.A. in the name of liberal democracy was at the top of the Bishkek summit agenda," he said, noting that Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov had called for "forestalling the threat of imposing an alien way of life upon us."

Russia, meanwhile, has been using its energy clout to expand its influence in former
Soviet territories, and energy cooperation featured strongly on the SCO agenda this week, with the leaders agreeing to create a "unified energy market" to facilitate movement of oil and gas supplies among members, some of whom are major producers.

The leaders also discussed playing a bigger role in helping Afghanistan, and in fighting drug trafficking there.

Also attending the summit were representatives from SCO observer nations Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia, as well as invited guests from Afghanistan, the United Nations, and a Central Asian republic not currently in the SCO, the reclusive Turkmenistan.

No moves were announced to widen membership beyond the current six, despite recent renewed calls by Iran and Pakistan to join the grouping.

During the summit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the opportunity to attack U.S. plans to base ballistic missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe, saying the shield threatened all of Asia. The Pentagon says the plan -- which has drawn opposition primarily from Russia -- aims to protect against missiles launched from rogue states like Iran. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Bishkek that Russia could see no "long-term threat" from Iran.

In the six years since its founding, the SCO has taken an increasingly assertive stance -- primarily, some analysts say, at the behest of Russia and China -- against "outside" involvement in the energy-rich region.

Moscow and Beijing have not had it all their own way, however. Two years ago, an annual SCO summit issued a joint call for the U.S. to set a deadline for withdrawing from the region troops deployed there after 9/11. Uzbekistan followed up by giving the Pentagon notice to withdraw U.S. troops and aircraft from the strategically-located Karshi-Khanabad (K-2) base in the south of the country by the end of 2005.

Three other SCO member states, however, effectively ignored the declaration. Kazakhstan continues to allow coalition planes use of its airspace, the U.S. has overflight and refueling rights in Tajikistan, and an American base at Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan -- used, like K-2. in support of operations in Afghanistan -- remains open for the meantime.

Nourzhanov said Kyrgyzstan would likely continue to host the U.S. airbase as long as it is used for the stated purpose of providing logistical support for operations in Afghanistan.

"The SCO does not have a problem with this," he said, adding that the presence of a Russian base at Kant less than 20 miles from Manas "seems to be a sufficient guarantee against harm in the eyes of other SCO members."

'Silencing dissent'

Some analysts have characterized the SCO as an eastern response to NATO -- a Russian newspaper this week reportedly dubbed it "Warsaw Pact II" -- but Nourzhanov said the organization was in fact "pretty rudimentary."

"Unlike NATO, it has no military component or a clear sense of mission," he said. "Its main form of activity is the annual summit, where leaders give vent to their pent-up grievances against each other and the rest of the world. The meeting in Bishkek was no exception."

Most SCO member states are ruled by autocratic regimes, and critics see the grouping's focus on combating "terrorism, separatism and extremism" as aimed at suppressing internal unrest -- particularly in countries like Uzbekistan and China's western Uighur region, location of the earlier stages of "Peace Mission 2007."

"Many SCO member states commit serious human rights violations in their campaigns against terrorism and 'extremism,'" Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

"Governments in the region have used overbroad definitions of 'extremist' to silence peaceful dissent," said Holly Cartner, the group's director for Europe and Central Asia.

Promoting its own ongoing security interests in the region, the U.S. in June held a small, week-long joint disaster response exercise in Central Asia involving representatives from SCO members Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

U.S. Central Command, which organized the "Regional Cooperation 07" exercise, said that in addition to the disaster response focus it also "promoted cooperation across bordering nations in countering narcotics, terrorism, and illegal activities."

Nourzhanov said he believes U.S. influence in Central Asia is waning from a high point in 2002, and that SCO members are frustrated about the lack of progress in Afghanistan.

"All SCO members supported the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan in 2001 for the very pragmatic reason -- the Taliban and narcotics trafficking affected their security in a very dramatic manner," he said. "Six years later the situation has not improved, so now the SCO intends to play a more active role in Afghanistan, bypassing the U.S. and its allies."

"The precise nature and extent of this role is yet to be seen," he added.

See Earlier Article:
Central Asia 'Great Game' Heats Up (May 31, 2006)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow