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Is the SCO a Military Confederacy? By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, October 06, 2005

The members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will recognize the organization’s fifth anniversary in June 2006 with a much anticipated celebration, “Everyone agrees this first jubilee date must be celebrated accordingly,” said Vitally Vorobyev, Russia’s coordinator in the SCO. Washington, however, will not be joining in the festivities.   

The reason for Washington’s sour mood? Growing anxiety surrounding the ultimate mission of the SCO and its impact on Central Asia and the Middle East. Pictures taken by journalists of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the recent Peace Mission 2005 military exercises, showing the president in full military attire and holding a large model warplane were not reassuring. His subsequent flight in a supersonic bomber specifically designed to deliver a nuclear payload did not help either.

This raises an important question: With SCO leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Hu Jintao and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad openly embracing military modernization and improved synergies, is the organization destined to become a military confederacy with the U.S. as its main target?   


 “For the SCO to be turned into a military and political bloc or alliance, the present-day SCO would need to be dissolved. The legislation of some of the SCO member-countries makes this [military confederacy] impossible,” said Vitally Vorobyov. He immediately followed these comments with a contradictory statement, “Cooperation between defense agencies within the SCO framework can and should develop. The SCO makes provision for this, its nothing new.”


Statements of this type from high-level Russian and SCO officials continue to perplex western intelligence officials, leading some to speculate that it may be only a matter of time before the SCO begins to exert its collective military influence in Central Asia and the Middle East.


Peace Mission 2005


In August, “Peace Mission 2005,” a joint eight-day military exercise involving 10,000 Russian and Chinese troops, was held in Russia’s Far East and China’s Shandong Peninsula. The exercises were led by Russian General Makhmut Gareyev, a veteran of World War II who fought against both Germany and Japan. Requests by Washington to reduce the scope of the exercises were rejected by both Russia and China.


The joint exercises involved beach landings, airborne assaults, naval blockades, anti-ship missiles and precision bombing from strategic bombers. To the surprise of western intelligence officials, Russian Tu-95MS Bear and Tu-22M3 Backfire strategic bombers designed to carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were deployed during the exercises. The exercises reportedly involved a mock intervention to stabilize an imaginary country driven by ethnic strife.


In response, the U.S. launched a week long “Joint Air Sea Exercise 2005” in Okinawa and Guam which included 10,000 troops and 100 warplanes from the USS Kitty Hawk strike group. In addition, the U.S. and South Korea participated in a twelve day “Ulchi Focus Lens 2005” military exercise. Taiwan has already announced that it has scheduled its own invasion defense exercise code named “Yama Sakura” for 2006. Taken collectively, the military exercises send a clear message to Moscow and Beijing that the U.S. is prepared to respond to any collaborative military threat.


Recent Military Exchanges


In September, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov announced his country had agreed to supply China with a total of 40 IL-76 transport and IL-78 refueling planes at a cost of about $1 billion. Later this month, Ivanov is expected to sign contracts to deliver Russian military vehicles to China.


The recent plane and vehicle sales continue a trend of Russian military hardware transfers to China which have included: 200 fourth-generation fighter aircraft, several S-300 air defense batteries, guided missile destroyers and sophisticated submarines worth a combined $15 billion over the past ten years. In 2004 alone, Russian arms exports to China totaled $2.3 billion.


According to Konstantin Makiyenko, the deputy director of the Center for Strategic and Technological Analysis, a Moscow-based think tank, China is also interested in purchasing Russian made A-50 Mainstay AWACS planes and a manufacturing license for the Su-30MK2 multi-role fighter. Moreover, Beijing has made it clear that it wants to accelerate the purchase of advanced Russian fighters, unmanned aircraft and long and short-range missiles as part of its ongoing modernization program.


Not surprisingly, Russian Defense Minister Ivanov announced this month that Russian servicemen would travel to China for training stating, “Russia needs more experts who can speak Chinese.” More than 500 Chinese students already study at Russian military universities. But why the sudden urgency for improved communication between the two militaries?


Indeed, Washington has begun to take notice of the evolving relationship. As U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack commented in August, “We would hope that anything that they [China and Russia] do is not something that would be disruptive to the current atmosphere in the [Central Asia] region.” Unfortunately, Mr. McCormack may be disappointed.


Future Military Exercises


Immediately after the completion of their historic joint military exercises, Russia and China announced plans to hold additional joint exercises in 2006. Both countries anticipate expanding the exercises to include SCO member states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as observer states India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan. “It is possible by the time we decide to hold such exercises with China; other SCO countries would be willing to join, like India,” one Russian official said. Russian Defense Minister Ivanov concurred, “I think that future Russia-China military exercises will be held and other members of the SCO will probably take part in them.”   


Russia and India are scheduled to hold their first joint army drill next month, with mock raids on terrorist facilities taking place in the Indian province of Rajastahn, on the border with Pakistan. Andrei Kokoshin, a former secretary of the Russian Security Council and a member of parliament said the impending follow-up to the Peace Mission 2005 exercises could be part of a Russia-China-India triangle which supports the increased activity of the SCO. “The exercise might focus on maintaining stability in Central Asia and ensuring the security of oil supplies via sea routes,” Kokoshin said.


Chinese, Indian and Russian naval assets working in unison to protect oil supplies in the Persian Gulf? This comment shows another disturbing aspect of the emerging confederacy, an increased willingness to use its combined military strength to secure strategic energy reserves located in the Middle East. The mere thought of the Persian Gulf clogged with warships enforcing multilateral allegiances and interests is enough to make any analyst stay up all night.


General Yury Baluyevskiy, Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, further elaborated on the topic of SCO military cooperation, “I do not rule out that, if a decision is made by the SCO, of which Russian and China are members, the armed forces of our countries may be involved in performing certain tasks.” General Baluyevskiy failed to elaborate on what those “certain tasks” would include. 


Observer country Pakistan is also becoming more active in the military aspects of the SCO. In September, Chinese General Liang Guanglie, a member of the Central Military Commission and Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), met with Pakistani General Ehsan Ul Haq, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to strengthen military-to-military ties. During the meeting in Beijing, the two generals exchanged views on issues of common global and regional interest, as well as army building.


The most troubling development of the past month related to the SCO is the growing prospect of a nuclear-obsessed Iran joining the organization as a permanent member. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the newly elected conservative President of Iran, is a proven U.S. antagonist and a firm believer in spreading revolutionary Islamist ideology throughout the Muslim world. His recent comments at the U.N. concerning the U.S. show a preparation for confrontation with the U.S. Making matters worse, Iran is planning to build up its military forces. Iran had planned to double its military budget by 2010, but thanks to record oil revenues, that timetable has been adjusted to 2008.


New Thinking Needed


The SCO is a menacing confederacy of powerful nations arising out of the shadows of the Cold War that could cause tremendous global instability and even lead to world war. Geopolitics aside, the SCO has the potential to become the most powerful alliance on earth, combining Russia’s energy, military and technology expertise; China and India’s economic and human capital; and Iran’s enormous energy resources and growing military capabilities. This unique combination makes the SCO a formidable adversary for the U.S.


In February, Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chief of staff General Liang Guanglie said the Peace Mission 2005 exercises would, “protect the peace and stability in our region and the world.” The world? The world has been led to believe that the SCO is a regional alliance designed to address issues of mutual concern such as terrorism, separatism and extremism - whatever they may mean at the moment for the members of the SCO. With military operations scheduled for 2006 and an expanded list of participating nations, the military threat posed by the SCO is starting to take shape.


At this time, what steps need to be taken by the U.S. to prepare for a possible SCO military threat? First, the U.S. Congress, Department of Defense and U.S. intelligence community must recognize that the continued military modernization and integration involving Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran will directly threaten the U.S. and its allies within the next several years. This is an uncomfortable reality, but one which is taking shape right before our eyes.


Second, calls by the SCO and others in the international community for an immediate withdraw of U.S. troops from the Middle East and Central Asia should be disregarded, due to the horrific consequences that the inevitable power vacuum would cause. Instead, strategic alliances should be strengthened with countries such as Georgia and the Ukraine to counter any regional threat.


Third, recent calls by Iran for a Muslim seat on the UN Security Council should be viewed for what they are: an effort by Tehran to weaken U.S. legitimacy in the international community and diminish its influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement that his country will sell “peaceful” nuclear technology to other Islamic countries is too chilling to contemplate.


In short, the SCO is an immature, but potentially dangerous confederacy of countries with a mutual interest to dethrone the U.S. and, if necessary, confront it militarily. Under the guise of economic partnership, regional alliances and friendship, China, Russia and the other members of the SCO are rapidly increasing their collective power. Recent Pentagon reports identifying China as a growing threat are indeed accurate, but don’t go far enough.

The reports are deficient in that they base their analysis and predictions on countries such as China acting unilaterally. As a result, compulsory discussions concerning the rise of regional and global alliances that threaten the U.S. are not taking place. This could be a fatal mistake, since the SCO has become the perfect vehicle for coordinated military action in the future.

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Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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