Special operations troops from SCO member state militaries at the opening ceremony of joint exercises in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding joint exercises with special operations forces from Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan -- and they're doing it at a military base in Kyrgyzstan that the United States spent $9 million to build.
The SCO exercises taking place this week involve 20-25 special operations troops from each participating country (all the member states except Uzbekistan, which typically sits out SCO military exercises). During the five-day exercise the troops will practice deploying to mountain areas, deploying from helicopters, seeking and destroying terrorist groups, rescuing hostages, and treating and evacuating wounded troops. Pretty standard stuff for a joint special operations exercise.
What makes this drill stand out is the site: the base of the Scorpions special operations unit in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Readers may recall that this is the base that U.S. Central Command and the U.S. embassy in Bishkek spent $9 million to build. It's no wonder it was attractive to the SCO, given that a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from the opening ceremony of the base in 2009 described it as "the gold standard in Central Asian construction ... far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have." The facility includes
"officer and enlisted housing, classroom training facilities, a multipurpose facility, a dining facility and shower/sauna complex."
Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian envoy Ali Akbar Velayati in January. (photo: Kremlin)
Iran may be admitted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer if it makes progress in resolving disputes over its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said.
It already seems clear that India and Pakistan, who have both long sought SCO membership, will be admitted at the organization's summit this July in Ufa, Russia. Iran -- which also has been trying for years to enter the SCO -- has been hampered by the fact that it is under international sanctions related to its nuclear program.
But when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Moscow in late January, he reportedly gained the Kremlin's approval for SCO membership.
"Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to 'upgrade its status' in the SCO," noted regional analyst Alex Vatanka. "As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran."
Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said.
The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.
Mezentsev, speaking at a press conference February 10, also put Iran in the same category of applicants as India and Pakistan, and said that there are "no legal obstacles" to them becoming members. So might Iran, too, be slated to join this summer?
Currently the SCO has six members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan are observers, while Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Turkey are "dialog partners."
Neither Baku nor Yerevan has confirmed Mezentsev's statement. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan mooted the idea of becoming an SCO observer in 2013, but nothing came of it then.
It does seem like there is some real interest in Azerbaijan in becoming an observer. Independent member of parliament Rasim Musabekov said in an interview that "the SCO is a quite authoritative international forum, located not too far from Azerbaijan. Countries close to Azerbaijan like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyyrgyzstan are in it. So we're interested in being part of this forum." He added, though, that "this will in no way affect the resolution of the Karabakh problem."
Kazakhstani soldiers take part in exercises against "extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations." (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan's armed forces are carrying out exercises against "separatists," citing "geopolitical shifts" as the justification. But while the reference to separatists may make the Kremlin a bit uneasy, the scenario seems to be oriented toward Chinese separatists, rather than Ukrainian.
The exercise is being conducted from January 15-17 by land forces command staff. "According to the scenario of the joint staff training, groups from extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations, disguised as refugees, infiltrate the territory of a hypothetical government," according to a release from the Ministry of Defense. "During the course of the training the soldiers blocked and destroyed illegal armed formations and repelled the invasion."
The "relevance of the training" was the result of "contemporary geopolitical shifts," the MoD added. So what geopolitical shifts is Astana worried about?
The last line seems to point to a Ukraine scenario; as Ukrainian website depo.ua suggests, "ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan complain about 'oppression' and eagerly await the arrival of 'little green men' from Russia." While Kazakhstan has clearly been rattled by the events in Ukraine, and has undertaken serious efforts to shore up its statehood as a result, ethnic Russians are hardly begging for Moscow's intervention.
The web page for Russia's joint SCO/BRICS summits next year in Ufa..
Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, gave a tour d'horizon of his country's rapidly evolving foreign policy, including some of the most explicit hints to date that the country is reorienting away from Europe and toward Asia -- especially China.
In an October 20 speech to members of the country's ruling party, United Russia, Lavrov addressed familiar topics like the need for a multipolar world and perfidy of the West. But in the past Russian officials tend to elide the details of what an alternative to the Western-led world would look like.
Particularly striking in Lavrov's speech was the attention given to China. This was in his introduction:
The realignment, or, I would even say, the deconcentration of the global balance of forces, is a hallmark of our time. Most clearly, this can be seen in the greater economic power and increasing political clout of the Asia-Pacific Region. These countries have largely assumed the role of a driver of global economic growth, a role which was traditionally performed by the United States,Western Europe and Japan. As we can see, China achieved the greatest success on this path and, according to the latest report issued by the International Monetary Fund, has for the first time become the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity Based on the findings of the IMF experts, the seven largest so-called “emerging economies,” including our country, outdid the seven industrialized Western countries in terms of combined GDP. That’s a totally new picture of the world that does not fit into the centuries-old notion of Western dominance in the global economy, finance and politics.
Turkey's ties to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are complementary to its ties with the West, not a replacement for them, the country's minister in charge of European Union integration has said. This appears to be a step back from previous statements of then-prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he has repeatedly identified the China-led SCO as an "alternative" to the EU.
Any cooperation between Turkey and the Shanghai Five is “complementary rather than alternative” and Turkey’s strengthened ties with the group of countries -- which is also known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- might add more to European Union, EU Minister Volkan Bozkır said in an exclusive interview with Deutsche Welle in Berlin.
“EU membership is Turkey’s primary strategic target since we have been struggling with it for 50 years already. However, the perception is that if Turkey forges a relationship with the SCO it would bring about the end of its EU bid. The world has already become globalized. Turkey has and will have ties with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC], the G20 and African and Latin American organizations. All these ties are complementary rather than alternative. Thus, Turkey having this kind of relationship might contribute more power to the EU,” Bozkır said in an interview on Wednesday, dismissing the fact that any close ties with the SCO might damage Turkey’s years-long EU efforts.
A group photo of the presidents of the six SCO member states, at the 2014 summit in Dushanbe. Will the 2015 photo have two more presidents? (photo: SCO)
After last month's summit in Dushanbe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears poised to finally expand its membership after years of discussion and speculation. SCO members signed protocols for admitting new members, and various officials from member countries have signaled that India and Pakistan will be invited to join at next year's summit in Ufa, Russia.
This would be a watershed move for the organization, which has captured the geopolitical imagination of many around the world who see it as a growing counterweight to Western dominance. That mystique has grown in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that the group has thus far been more about talk than action.
The SCO is now dominated by two powers, Russia and China, and also includes the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Those were the original six members when the group was founded in 2001, and despite many entreaties to join -- in particular by India, Pakistan, and Iran -- the group has never expanded. So why is it doing so now? And will expansion add to the group's clout, or dilute its ability to act?
Russia's interest in SCO expansion is relatively obvious: in the wake of the collapse of its relations with the West, the Kremlin is eager to make it appear as if it has plenty of friends around the world and so doesn't need Europe or the U.S. That's resulted in a renewed enthusiasm in Moscow for the SCO; Russia had previously mistrusted the group as being a possible stalking horse for Chinese expansion into what it considers its own strategic backyard, Central Asia.
When outsiders look at the various new post-Soviet integration projects they often see an attempt by Russia to impose its will on its neighbors; in Hillary Clinton's formulation, a move to "re-Sovietize" the region. The U.S., by contrast, likes to say that its policy in the former Soviet space are directed at allowing those states to maintain their "sovereignty and independence."
But that has it backwards, Russia is increasingly arguing. In a piece published Wednesday in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argues that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other post-Soviet security blocs allow members "a choice of their own pattern of development" while NATO demands strict "bloc discipline" of its members.
That Lavrov wrote an op-ed praising the SCO is already interesting enough: Russia has not always been so enthusiastic about the organization, which tends to carry more of a Chinese influence (the other members are the smaller Central Asian states in between the two powers: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). But since the crisis in Ukraine resulted in a huge rupture between Russia and the West, Moscow has sought to revive its ties to China and as a result has become noticeably more enthusiastic about the SCO.
When the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises kick off August 24, the organization that is often promoted as an "alternative to the West" will be benefitting from American and European contributions.
Kazakhstan will be transporting its troops on the C-295 it bought from Airbus. And Kyrgyzstan's contribution will be made up largely of soldiers from the 'Scorpions' and 'Ilbirs' special forces units that the U.S. has spent a lot of money and time training.
In 2009, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Bishkek opened a brand-new base for the Scorpions, built with $9 million of U.S. Central Command's money. "The compound, which consists of 12 buildings, landscaping and accompanying infrastructure, is truly the gold standard in Central Asian construction and far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have," according to a U.S. diplomatic cable describing the event. The U.S. also has spent millions to both train and equip the Scorpions and Ilbirs.
This isn't exactly news: The Scorpions and Ilbirs units have participated in several SCO exercises in the past, including drills in 2007, 2010, and 2012.