The joint military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will involve about 7,000 troops, the largest number in an SCO exercise in many years, as the organization seems to be taking on a new prominence in the wake of collapsing Russia-West relations.
The bulk of the troops exercising, as in past years, appear to be from China. Russia announced that it is sending about 900 troops, as well as hardware including four Su-25 jets and eight Mi-8MT helicopters. Kazakhstan said it is participating with about 300 troops from an air-mobile unit. From Tajikistan, more than 200 soldiers are participating, including members of an unnamed "rapid reaction unit." (An aside: one wonders if it is one of the special forces units that the U.S. has trained.) Uzbekistan, as usual, does not seem to be participating at all. Kyrgyzstan is sending about 500 soldiers. So if it's 7,000 total, that's about 5,000 from China.
The exercises, Peace Mission 2014, will be held August 24 to 29 in China's Inner Mongolia region. But participating countries have already started moving their troops toward China. "Loading up -- that's already a stage of the exercise. We're trying to improve, getting used to loading up our equipment," said Ruslan Muzdybayev, the deputy commander of Kazakhstan's air mobile forces for military readiness.
The SCO's military component seems to have diminished over the past few years, and according to Xinhua's count this is the largest SCO military exercise since 2004 and the first really large-scale exercises since 2010.
But in the last few months, at least in the Russian-language press, there has been a renewed interest in the SCO, likely connected with the fact that as Russia and Western countries impose sanctions on one another, Russia has said it will depend more on China. One analysis on RIA Novosti last week called the SCO "A New Alternative to the West," the kind of lofty geopolitical language that lately had fallen out of favor among SCO observers. And there have been a number of rumors about an imminent increase in membership, possibly including India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia. An SCO source denied that to Asia-Plus, however.
Russia's new interest in the SCO isn't necessarily what's behind the big increase in size of the Peace Mission exercises; Russia's contribution isn't much bigger than it has been in past years. The SCO, dominated by China with Russia as a sort of deputy head, had been focusing lately more on economic development and law enforcement cooperation in Central Asia. So it'll be interesting to see whether this exercise does in fact augur a return to a more hard security emphasis for the group.