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'Peace Mission'
Asian Wall Street Journal

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on August 15th, 2007
ARTICLES

The world will understandably have some questions this Thursday when Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian leader Vladimir Putin meet at Garrison Chebarkul in Russia to review troops from both their countries, as well as four states of former Soviet Central Asia. The event will mark the end of maneuvers called Peace Mission 2007, and it raises some important questions. Does this exercise signal a stepping up of already substantial military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing? And if it does, cooperation against what or whom?

The answer to the first question is clearly yes, cooperation is increasing. This year's Peace Mission in Russia involved about 4,000 troops and 100 aircraft from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a threefold increase in participants over Peace Mission 2005, held in China. This year's Peace Mission exercises, conducted from Aug. 8 to 17, included full-fledged conventional air-ground offensive maneuvers that stressed ground and airborne assault, and coordinated air strikes by attack aircraft and attack helicopters. Russian and Chinese reporting thus far indicates the maneuvers were directed against "terrorist" strongholds in rural and urban settings.

Less clear is against what or whom the show of force was directed. The military exercises are sponsored by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a intergovernmental group founded with Chinese help to promote worthy goals of cooperation and peace in former Soviet Central Asia. In practice, however, the organization's priorities have evolved over time, and its top mission now seems to be to stop overt Islamic identification among the peoples of the region, who are mostly ethnically Turkic and traditionally Muslim.

If one includes the currently Chinese-held territory of East Turkestan (Xinjiang), Central Asia covers nearly two million square miles in the strategic heart of Eurasia, populated by peoples who have never willingly accepted rule either from Moscow or Beijing. It is rich in resources, notably oil and natural gas. For now Central Asia's rulers are mostly former Soviet officials, as fearful of Islam as are China or Russia. But they are not secure. Change in an Islamic direction, which is possible -- even likely -- will spell trouble.

To begin with, then, Peace Mission 2007 is a cooperative exercise by the rulers of the Central Asian states, supported by China and Russia, designed to prevent political instability. But that is not all. "Peace Mission 2007" also reveals a worrying pattern of cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, broadly speaking, against the west and democratic ideas.

In July, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization decided to draw up a shared list of proscribed organizations, to include terrorists of course, but also, western human-rights advocates fear, democracy advocates. They have good reason to worry. At the Army Chief of Staffs' conference in Urumqi, in Chinese-controlled East Turkestan (Xinjiang), Russian Chief of the General Staff General Yuri Baluyevsky attacked "certain Western states" that advocate "the formation of the so-called 'true democratic' institutions of state and public management . . . which causes destabilisation of the situation in the states of the region."

Both Russian and Chinese officials have claimed the Peace Mission exercises are "not directed against any one country." But when the United States asked the Chinese government if it could send observers, hoping for a return of its generous hosting of People's Liberation Army (PLA) observers at the 2006 Valiant Shield, a large exercise involving the U.S. and its Asian allies, China said "no."

Beijing evidently wishes to minimize attention to its increasing long-distance force projection abilities, demonstrated in, but not limited to, Central Asia. The PLA's contingent included 1,600-1,700 airborne and ground troops plus associated light-weight armor and about 36 aircraft. Not large numbers to be sure, but this marks the first ever PLA foreign deployment of such a combined arms group. On July 30, PLA Senior Colonel (equivalent to a brigadier general) Lu Chuangang, told state media that Peace Mission would test their capability in "long distance mobility" and "long distance integrated support."

Most western analysts have been skeptical that Beijing harbored such large ambitions. The operations in Peace Mission suggest China does, a possibility supported by other evidence. China is refurbishing the former Russian aircraft carrier Varyag and planning its own carrier force. A military airlifter is being developed that could carry 60 tons of cargo, similar to the U.S. C-17. Last December, the PLA Navy launched a 20,000 ton landing platform dock amphibious assault ship. In May, a Chinese shipbuilding official admitted to me their development of a landing helicopter dock air-amphibious assault ship.

New PLA airlifters and new medium-weight wheeled airmobile fighting vehicles being produced by the PLA will give it a future army-airborne projection capability that would compliment nicely that of Russia's. Peace Mission 2007, in fact, resembled the coordinated operations needed to shore up a tottering dictatorship, much as Soviet forces did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. This follows the 2005 Peace Mission exercises, which demonstrated air and naval capabilities the PLA needs to attack Taiwan.

But the SCO's ability to develop a deeper military alliance is not certain. Russian press reports note that China rejected Russia's proposal to co-host the exercises with the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, indicating that currently coincidental Russian-Chinese security agendas could easily diverge. Russia-friendly Kazakhstan did not allow Chinese troops to travel across its territory, adding thousands of kilometers to their journey. The SCO must soon also face the question of whether or not to make full members of current observers India, Pakistan and Iran -- respectively, a nuclear-armed democracy, a nuclear-armed failed state and a future nuclear-armed rogue state.

All in all, Peace Mission 2007 provides plenty of reason for concern. It highlights the direct military interest Russia and China are taking in Central Asia, an area of which the U.S. and Europe know very little. Even more worrying, the Chinese role in the exercise provides yet more evidence of the dimensions of Chinese military ambitions and capabilities, the potential targets of which are by no means limited to Central Asian Muslims.

Mr. Fisher is a vice president with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

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