China is trying to raise its profile in Central Asian security matters, and Russia wants to discourage Uzbekistan from strengthening security ties with the United States. In seeking to achieve these policy aims, China and Russia hope the Shanghai Cooperation Organization proves to be a key mechanism. Recent anti-terrorist exercises marked a significant step in the ongoing effort to turn the organization into a major regional player.
SCO foreign ministers held security talks in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent on September 5. Member states - including China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - have struggled to develop an organizational infrastructure since the group's formal founding in 2001. They now hope that an SCO secretariat, to be based in Beijing, along with a Tashkent anti-terrorism center, will be operational by early 2004.
Military maneuvers in August generated hope among SCO adherents. The exercises, which focused on combating terrorists and separatists, were the first of its kind staged by SCO forces. Officials of some member states - especially China and Russia - believe the maneuvers can build the SCO's credibility as a security alternative to the US military presence in Central Asia.
The maneuvers - dubbed Cooperation 2003 -- were conducted in two stages. The first, held August 6 in eastern Kazakhstan, involved every member state except Uzbekistan, and was designed to improve the joint command and control structure and address other inter-operability issues. Such exercises are vital to enhance the SCO's capabilities, in part because China's military establishment has little experience in coordinating operations with other nations' armed forces. The exercises also included a mock operation to free passengers from a hijacked commercial airliner. The second stage, held later in China, involved an operation to uproot separatist fighters who, under a hypothetical scenario, had infiltrated the region.
SCO military leaders were generally optimistic about the results. Mukhtar Altynbayev, Kazakhstan's defense minister, suggested member states remained keen to further develop capabilities, indicating a preference for holding joint military maneuvers twice a year.
Gen. Li Qianyuan, commander of the Xinjiang Military District in China, said many operational compatibility issues had been resolved during Cooperation 2003. Li, however, admitted that SCO states needed to work more on harmonizing combat tactics. Holding frequent maneuvers would go along way towards breaking down existing barriers among the military cultures of SCO states, he stressed.
On a regional level, member states hope the SCO can help contain growing security threats, particularly Islamic radicalism and separatist sentiment. Critics have said the emphasis on anti-terrorism is a cover, designed to help regional governments repress individual liberties and frustrate political opposition.
A larger geopolitical aim for some SCO states is to develop the organization's capabilities to the point that it can counteract US unilateralizm. China does little to conceal its desire for the SCO to render the US strategic presence in Central Asia - including military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan - redundant. Chinese leaders are wary that the American bases can potentially facilitate Beijing's geopolitical encirclement. To avoid this, China is pressing to increase its influence over Central Asian states.
Zhao Huashen, a Chinese political scientist who specializes in Central Asian developments, articulated the Chinese view in a recent article in the Kazakhstani journal Analytic. In the article, Zhao suggested the United States now enjoys a dangerous level of influence over Central Asian states. He went on to express concern over Washington's ability to compel continued support for US policy goals. "The United States can influence Central Asian foreign policy when it needs to," Zhao said. The article amounted to a thinly veiled warning to Central Asian leaders to diversify their security options and thereby dilute American power.
Kazakhstan, which has promoted a so-called multi-vectored approach to security policy, is perhaps the Central Asian state most open to the Chinese message. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, remains the most elusive -- technically a SCO member, but remaining aloof. Indeed, Uzbekistan is the Central Asian state with the closest strategic relationship with the United States.
Both China and Russia have increased efforts in recent months to dissuade Tashkent from further expanding US ties. Tellingly, the long-planned opening of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Center in Bishkek has been scrapped. On September 4, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksander Yakovenko confirmed plans that the ATC headquarters would be relocated to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, opening as early as January. President Islam Karimov, though opposed on principle to the creation of military blocs in Central Asia, may yet decide that Uzbekistan can enhance security by working with a flexible SCO.
The struggle for Uzbekistan's allegiance appears set to continue. NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson is scheduled to visit Tashkent later this month, and will likely convey to Karimov a need to maintain Uzbekistan's commitment to Western security structures. Likewise, it remains to be seen whether the SCO can surmount the long-standing logistical challenges and make the goal of establishing an organizational secretariat a reality.
By Roger N McDermott,
Eurasianet, September 05, 2003