Kazakhstan troops march in the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2016 military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is conducting its first joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan, just weeks after a suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.
The 2016 version of the SCO's Peace Mission exercise kicked off on Thursday at the Edelweiss training center near Lake Issyk-Kul. As is often the case, the scenario of the exercise involves an "anti-terror" operation with considerably heavier firepower than is usually employed against terrorists. Chinese helicopters, for example, practiced using air-to-air missiles.
"The need to conduct such exercises is dictated by modern realities," said Colonel Ruslan Mukambetov, the Kyrgyzstan officer commanding the exercises. "They have repeatedly proven their relevance and significance amid the current international situation, both in the SCO area of responsibility and in the world at large... In addition to its direct purpose - the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism - they also promote closer military cooperation between our countries’ armed forces."
There seems to be some discrepancies in the reporting of how many troops are involved: The official Chinese People's Liberation Army news site said that it was 1,100, while Mukambetov said it was 2,000. The Russian contingent is reportedly 500 strong, and the Chinese, about 300.
Investigators from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are working on the case of the Chinese embassy bombing in Bishkek, which includes "Russian traces," a senior Russian security official said.
"Work on identifying the individuals who took part in the terror act in Bishkek continues with the coordination of SCO special services," said Sergey Smirnov, deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), at an SCO meeting in Almaty on Tuesday. "In this work, Tajik, Chinese, and Russian traces are being pursued."
A suicide bomber, whom Kyrgyzstan authorities described as a Uighur holding a Tajikistan passport, attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in late August, killing himself and wounding three embassy employees. If the Uighur connection is confirmed, it would signify that the insurgency that the Uighurs -- a Turkic, Muslim people centered in China's northwest -- have been carrying out in China has expanded into Central Asia.
Smirnov's reference to "SCO special services" is unclear; he could be referring to special services of SCO member countries (which include China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) or organs of the SCO itself, like the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. The former is not newsworthy but the latter would be, suggesting a deepening role of the SCO in regional security. But for now it seems more likely that Smirnov was referring to SCO member states, and phrased it that way because he was at an SCO meeting.
The chiefs of staff of the armed forces of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan watch military exercises in Urumqi. (photo: Inter Services Public Relations)
Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan have set up a "Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism" to jointly combat terrorism, further advancing security cooperation between the unlikely group of countries.
The chiefs of general staffs of the four armed forces met in Urumqi, China, on Wednsday and announced the formation of the mechanism, which will coordinate efforts on "study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training," according to a joint statement by the four sides.
Recall that when this idea was first publicly broached in March, Russian analysts reacted with some alarm, calling it a "Central Asian NATO" representing an unprecedentedly bold move by China into Central Asian security while excluding Russia. (Some Russian media then blamed this blog for fomenting discord between China and Russia by reporting on those analysts' comments.) Thus far there seems to be no further comment from the Russian government or press on this development.
The four representatives also observed a Chinese military exercise at Korla. "Exercise encompased a very effective neutralization of a terrorists' base in a remote mountainous region employing all the modern aerial and ground equipment and gadgets. [Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan] appreciated [the People's Liberation Army] troops for their skills and enhanced abilities to counter all categories of terrorism," according to a Pakistani military press release.
An adviser to American presidential candidate Donald Trump has criticized United States policy in Central Asia as unnecessarily antagonistic, giving a rare glimpse into what a Trump presidency could mean for U.S. relations in the region.
The adviser, Carter Page, spoke Thursday in Moscow, and the main theme of the talk was that Russia and China have more successfully pursued their interests in Central Asia because they deal on the basis of “respect, equality and mutual benefit.” That, he argued, was one of the reasons for the flourishing of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia.
Page contrasted that with the American approach, which he said was characterized by books like "Chaos, Violence, Dynasty," and "Predatory Regimes." (He was referring, apparently, to academic monographs by Eric McGlinchey and Scott Radnitz.) This, Page argued, was evidence of "nakedly emotional approaches to news, often involving expressions of opinion and lacking verification of factual assertion" which typified "mainstream western discourse" on Central Asia.
The heads of state of the SCO member states at their 2016 summit in Tashkent. (photo: president.uz)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's summit concluded with few concrete results and plenty of reminders that the group's members have different visions for where the would-be non-Western bloc should be heading.
At the SCO's 15th anniversary summit in Tashkent, there were plenty of vague declarations about the desirability of greater economic cooperation and stepping up the fight against terrorism, but no new initiatives as to how that might be achieved.
The concrete results of the summit were so meager that Russian President Vladimir Putin was reduced to touting the new SCO Youth Card, "which would offer students discounts on travel, accommodation, and visits to museums and other cultural and historical sites in the member countries."
The much-discussed accession of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO progressed with the signing of a memorandum of obligation. "We hope that our partners will complete these steps as soon as possible, in time for our next meeting in Kazakhstan," Putin said in his speech. Putin also pushed for Iranian membership: "We think that now that the Iranian nuclear issue has been settled and the UN sanctions lifted, there are no obstacles in the way of a positive assessment of Tehran’s membership application."
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov greets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping upon the latter's arrival to Uzbekistan for the SCO summit. (photo: president.uz)
As the 15th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is set to start on Thursday in Tashkent, the group is poised to continue its growth, with two new members and five new partners. The group's purpose, however, remains unclear, with its diverse members apparently unable to agree on a consistent agenda.
The biggest headline after last year's summit was that India and Pakistan were invited to join the organization as full members, the first expansion since the group was founded. (The SCO currently consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
But on the eve of this year's summit, it's not clear what the timetable for their accession is. Their final accession should take place next year, Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said. "The process of accepting India and Pakistan into the SCO will enter the final stage and we expect that at the next summit in Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan will be finally admitted into the SCO ranks," he said.
A senior Indian diplomat suggested that the timetable may be looser and hinted that it is dependent on the desires of current member states. “We need to work out what we need to do … As far as India’s pace of accession at the SCO being a function of Russia, China and the four countries of Central Asia, I would say we see ourselves as following fairly flexible multilateralism. So we are quite happy to engage in multiple processes. We have been working with other members of SCO on several other fields,” said the diplomat, Sujata Mehta, at a press conference Wednesday.
So far, the India-Russia railway project is not a fully rail-based route, rather a rail-sea-road-rail-shipment arrangement. Goods coming by rail from Mumbai will be ferried to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf, then carried north across Iran by rail to the city of Rasht. Trucks will carry the load to the Azerbaijani border town of Astara, and then a train will carry it to Moscow, said Javid Gurbanov, chairperson of Azerbaijan Railways.
Baku says the route, part of a north-south transit corridor, will carry 5 million tons of goods annually. For a smoother shipment, Iran and Azerbaijan are negotiating the construction of a rail link between the cities of Rasht and Astara. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is due in Baku in August to discuss funding and technical matters. Azerbaijani officials say they may lend part of the estimated $900 million to Iran for the railway project.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed this week during a visit from Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov to Moscow, Russia has lost its top trading partner status with the Central Asian nation for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Unsurprisingly, it was China that took that title in 2015 after it did $3 billion worth of trade with Uzbekistan. And that was even lower than in 2014, when the figure stood at $4.7 billion.
As Putin noted ruefully, the fall was down to the currency devaluation brought on by the slump in global prices for oil.
“Russia occupies the second place among external trade partners for Uzbekistan. Our share in Uzbekistan’s external trade is 17 percent,” Putin said on April 26, according to a Kremlin transcript.
It’s not all bad news for Moscow though. The volume of bilateral goods trade has actually increased in the first quarter of this year, by 7.9 percent.
According to Russia’s Federal Customs Service, Russia’s trade with Uzbekistan in 2015 hit $2.8 billion. Uzbekistan has a substantial trade deficit with Russia, importing $2.2 billion worth of goods, while exporting $602 million in 2015.
Uzbek political analyst Kamoliddin Rabimov said that although the nominal drop in trade was indeed down to the collapse of the ruble, the overall trend was unmistakeable.
“The scale of the trade turnover between China and Uzbekistan has become so big that we will see it, mostly likely, only continue to increase. Russia is gradually losing its economic presence in Central Asia to Russia, and that is notwithstanding the fact that countries in Central Asia have not entirely opened their doors to China,” Rabimov said.
The shift inevitably bears geopolitical significance as well.
Months after breaking off a long-standing deal with Russian companies to build two major hydropower projects, Kyrgyzstan has found a potential white knight in the form of a major Chinese investor.
Kyrgyzstan deputy Prime Minister Oleg Pankratov met with representatives of China’s State Power Investment Corporation on April 6 to discuss plan to build a cascade of four hydropower stations on the Naryn River. Collectively, the cascade is expected to generate around 4.6 billion kilowatt hours annually — more than either of the now-scotched Russian projects.
“We are carrying out work on a few projects to develop new generating capacities that will allow us, in the near future, to considerably increase the amount of power produced. This is of special importance, because energy consumption is growing every year that passes”, Pankratov was quoted as saying by KyrTag news agency.
An official for the state-owned electricity provider State Power Investment Corporation told Kyrgyz media that they have assessed the potential of the Central Asian nation’s hydropower potential and feel ready to begin work on building the 1,150 megawatt Kazarman hydropower cascade.
The terms of the deal are not yet known, however.
According to the company website, Beijing-based State Power Investment Corporation holds assets in hydropower, thermal and nuclear power and has registered capital of $7 billion and total assets worth $120 billion.
In January, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to cancel earlier hydropower construction deals with the Russian companies leading the projects, citing lack of progress in work.
In an apparent attempt to assuage Russian concerns, Chinese defense officials have clarified their intentions to create a military bloc along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. They emphasize that it is not to be a "Central Asian NATO" and would "complement" the efforts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia is a member, rather than exclude Moscow.
The initiative in question was announced during a visit by General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during a visit to Kabul last month. Details have been scant, but the initiative was a surprising one given China's traditional deference to Russia in Central Asia security affairs. And Russian media have accused their Western counterparts of deliberately misconstruing the initiative in an effort to sow discord between the two giant neighbors.
"Western media outlets branded the suggestion as a 'Central Asian NATO' claiming to threaten Russia’s influence in the region," wrote the Russian state news agency Sputnik wrote.