China, Russia and several central Asian countries, all members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, have just wrapped up a massive round of anti terrorism military drills in Inner Mongolia. The joint exercises follow a year of multiple terrorist attacks inside China, mostly in its restive Xinjiang region that borders central Asia.
At least 7,000 troops from five countries participated in the joint exercises dubbed “Peace Mission 2014.” Chinese state media say a key objective of the combat-like drills is crushing a terrorist organization that is plotting attacks to divide the country and is supported by other terrorist groups overseas.
The exercises were the biggest yet for the regional grouping and incorporated tanks, fighter jets, early-warning aircraft, air defense missiles and even drones.
Raffaello Pantucci, is a senior fellow with the Royal United Services Institute.
“These exercises were originally just an offshoot of the SCO, which is a sort of a regional confidence building measures organization and something the Chinese wanted to use to help build their connections regionally and allow them to steadily develop, they are slowly turning into something, a really useful exercise for them," said Pantucci.
The exercises used to jokingly be referred to as an opportunity for Russia to show off its hardware to its customers. And China had a difficult time interacting with the other militaries as most participants were from Central Asia and together with Moscow shared a common language of Russian. But that is changing, Pantucci says.
“The Chinese have gotten very good about sending Russian speaking officers increasingly to these exercises. The balance of these exercises has distinctly shifted from something where the Chinese were kind of the outsiders," he said.
For the most part, China used its hosting of the drills to highlight what it regards as a serious growing threat from terrorism and religious extremism in Xinjiang. Just as the exercises began, China executed eight people accused of carrying out terrorist attacks in remote Xinjiang. It also released never before seen footage of the alleged mastermind of an attack on Tiananmen Square in Beijing late last year.
Alexander Cooley is a Central Asia analyst and political scientist at Columbia University.
“The SCO almost from its outset adopted the Chinese normative framework of combating the three evils - terrorism, separatism and extremism and that became part of the SCO’s mission. So, the security cooperation actually pre-dated economic plans, but China would really like to see the SCO become the multi-lateral veil through which it conducts most of its business in Central Asia," said Cooley.
China’s economic and security engagement with Central Asia has been booming since the Shanghai Cooperative Organization was established in 2001.
Since then, annual trade with the region has grown from less than $1 billion a year to more than $70 billion annually. And while China says the SCO is not a military alliance, the security component of the relationship is being watched ever closer now as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and Beijing weighs its future relationship with Kabul.