Central Asia

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and China-Central Asia military cooperation

The Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan officially became members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the SCO summit that took place on 8-9 June 2017 in Astana. According to the heads of state present at the meeting, full membership of the two countries will facilitate the development of the Organization and the enhancement of its potential. The prime ministers of India and Pakistan attended the meeting, while the other Member States were represented at presidential level. On this occasion, officials also discussed multilateral cooperation within the SCO, while debating the current international issues.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization also includes the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China and four former Soviet republics of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Founded initially in 1996 under the name of Shanghai Five, the SCO adopted its current name in 2001, with Uzbekistan being accepted as a Member State. The SCO was set up to strengthen mutual trust among Member States and to work together for maintaining peace, stability and security in the region. Cooperation within the SCO includes  border security as well as counter-terrorism and drug trafficking operations. In fact, one of the Organization’s main objectives is to promote cooperation in the field of security for fighting against terrorism, extremism and separatism.

China’s military cooperation within the SCO

With the emergence of a security framework within the SCO, China has managed to maintain the security of its borders with the Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) by demilitarizing them and by organizing frequent meetings between high-level officers. At the military level, the People’s Republic of China and the Central Asian countries cooperate by conducting joint exercises.

Initially, the military exercises organized within the SCO had a bilateral nature. Thus, in 2002, the first joint exercises between China and Kyrgyzstan took place. In August 2003, the first multilateral military exercises took place in East Kazakhstan and Xinjiang with the participation of thousands of Chinese, Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik soldiers. Also in 2003 a “Memorandum for the organization of joint counterterrorism exercises by the armed forces of the SCO member states” was signed. Since its signing, Member States have held joint military exercises almost every year.

In 2006, anti-terrorist exercises took place both in Uzbekistan, with the involvement of all security services, and in Tajikistan, between the Chinese and Tajik military troops. Two military exercises were organized in 2007, in Kyrgyzstan and Russia, with the participation of military troops and security agencies from all SCO countries. In 2010, exercises took place on the Matybulak Polygon in Semirechie region in Kazakhstan with the participation of 5,000 troops from SCO member states.

China also hosted the “Peace Mission” between 24 and 29 August 2014. According to the Xinhua press agency, these exercises were unprecedented in terms of both the scale of operations and the weapons used. The exercises involved various military branches, including land and air forces, as well as units dedicated to special operations, electronic countermeasures and reconnaissance. Thus, 7,000 troops from all five SCO member states were in China as part of these military exercises. In 2016, the SCO Peace Mission exercise was organized in Kyrgyzstan, at the Edelweiss Training Center near Lake Issyk-Kul, and focused on anti-terrorist operations. The joint exercises of 2016 brought together 2,000 troops from the SCO member states.

According to the European Parliament’s research department, the role of the SCO in the field of defense is, however, limited to the organization of military exercises for maintaining peace. At the same time, the source states that the military exercises organized in the SCO after 2014 were at a lesser magnitude, and the acceptance of India and Pakistan within the SCO is unlikely to facilitate defense cooperation. Thus, China is expanding its training in the field of special operations to combat terrorism and drug trafficking both inside and outside the SCO. Outside the SCO, China cooperates bilaterally with the Central Asian states.

China – Kyrgyzstan bilateral military cooperation

On 8 September 2017, at Bishkek, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Kyrgyzstan, Major General Raimberdi Duishenbiev, met with the Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Xiao Tsinghua, according to the Kyrgyz Republic General Staff Press Service. During the meeting, the parties discussed the current areas of bilateral military cooperation. The participants highlighted the high level of mutual understanding between the defense departments of the two countries, noted the positive development dynamics of cooperation and highlighted additional perspectives for the implementation of joint projects.

Earlier, the Chief of General Staff of the Kyrgyz Armed Forces, Major General Raimberdi Duishenbiev, met in Beijing on March 17, 2017 with General Fang Fenghui, member of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) and chief of the Joint Staff Department under the CMC. The two sides discussed about their views on topics such as international and regional security and military exchanges. China is willing to work with Kyrgyzstan to deepen cooperation in the areas of defense and security, counter-terrorism, staff training and joint exercises to improve relations between the two countries` armies and to further contribute to the development of China- Kyrgyzstan strategic partnership.

In 2014, China accepted to provide 6.5 million USD military assistance to Kyrgyzstan. Also, in 2008, it supplied military equipment (vehicles and computers) to the Kyrgyz Border Service in exchange for 0,7 million USD, and in 2002 China and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement for the delivery of technical military assistance of 1.2 million USD in Kyrgyzstan.

China – Uzbekistan bilateral military cooperation

On September 9, 2017, Meng Jianzhu, member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and head of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC Central Committee, met with the Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. China and Uzbekistan have agreed to strengthen the alignment of their development strategies and to cooperate in various fields. Mirziyoyev said he particularly appreciates China’s efforts to implement the agreements reached and Uzbekistan shows great importance to the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Uzbekistan in 2013 and in June 2016. In 2016, Jinping attended the 15th SCO Summit in Tashkent. At the same time, he held talks with former President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, on strengthening relations between the two countries in the “Strategic Partnership” that they concluded in 2012.

In 2000, China made a first step towards the Central Asian arms market, delivering sniper rifles to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.  In 2009, the two countries signed an agreement by which Beijing offers Uzbek authorities 3.7 million USD to set up its border crossings with mobile scanning systems.

China – Tajikistan bilateral military cooperation

In September 2016, China offered to build 11 new border checkpoints and a new military base on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Also in 2016, it set up a counter-terrorism alliance with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, organizing bilateral anti-terrorist exercises in Tajikistan that involved 10,000 soldiers from both countries.

In 2005, China and Tajikistan signed several military cooperation documents during an official visit of the Chinese Defense Minister to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, both states agreeing to exchange information on terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime.

China – Kazakhstan bilateral military cooperation

On October 13, 2015, the Chinese state councilor and Minister of National Defense, General Chang Wanquan, held talks with the Kazakhstan Defense Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov in Astana. The two parts exchanged ideas on defense policies, making promises about expanding military cooperation between the two countries as a response to common security issues. The main objective of the military arrangements between Kazakhstan and China is the preparation for an asymmetric war, which refers, in the context of Central Asia, to the fight against terrorist networks and guerrilla movements. China has agreed to coordinate the training of special forces with Kazakhstan and to improve the training of Kazakh militaries for war in urban, mountain and sea environments.

Since 2000, China and Kazakhstan have signed 1 million USD Material and Technical Equipment Agreements, intended primarily to support Kazakhstan’s efforts against the Uighur separatism and religious extremism. The Uighurs are a Muslim minority who lives largely in Xinjiang province in China, problems with the Chinese and Kazakh authorities determining them to lead a separatist policy in the region.

With the integration of India and Pakistan, SCO will account for over 40% of the world’s population and nearly 20% of global GDP. The two countries will also be compelled to be part of the regional anti-terrorist structure in Tashkent (RATS), which supports the fight against terrorism, drugs and cybercrime, and to participate in joint military exercises to combat organized terrorism within the SCO.

According to Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation and former intelligence analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (an US government`s intelligence agency), with India and Pakistan becoming official members of the SCO, China may face a greater degree of division at the level of the Organization. India’s acceptance might particularly displease Beijing, due to increased geopolitical competition between Asian states and various approaches in the field of combating terrorism. According to the same source, Russia initially proposed to include India as a member of the SCO, mainly to constrain China’s growing influence in the Organization, and Beijing might not have wanted India to join the SCO. However, China is not entirely dependent on the SCO framework for achieving its regional objectives, its current economic and military power, helping it to be more effective on its own.


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