This essay on China-SCO military exercise originally appeared on the ORF website.
Russia and China, along with other member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), are planning their anti-terror exercise, “Peace Mission 2009” in the summer of 2009 in northeastern China. Chinese defence minister Liang Guanglie made the announcement regarding the exercise after a successful meeting with the Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in 2008. The Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, quoting Chinese Ministry of Defence, stated that Peace Mission 2009 is intended to move beyond the original goals of fighting terrorism, extremism and separatism to a larger objective of strengthening the “strategic partnership between Russia and China.” In fact, one news report quoting an SCO official stated that these exercises will not be under the SCO umbrella, but rather a bilateral exercise. While Beijing professes that these joint exercises are intended to fight against ‘the three evils’ -- terrorism, extremism and separatism -- in reality, it has been a display of the rising profile of Chinese PLA. Will the 2009 exercise be yet another display of its military prowess? If this exercise is a bilateral one, what are its implications for the region?
Peace Mission 2009 is the third in the series; the first being “Peace Mission 2005,” in Russia’s Far East and the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, with about 10,000 people, which created huge controversy as it was seen as a Chinese preparation for an invasion of Taiwan; and the second one being in August 2007, which came under close world scrutiny as it watched one of the most complex military exercises in Asia. The Chinese exercise with the SCO members was an occasion to display and demonstrate their ability for joint operations with other forces; their combined employment of land, naval and air forces along with amphibious units; and more importantly projection of their military power. Following the exercise in 2007, Chen Jianmin of the Academy of Military Sciences of the PLA noted that the exercise assumed significance for the Chinese and “sets a new record in the history of our armed forces in troop projection and will likewise be an unprecedented test and temper of the remote mobile ability of our armed forces, and for that matter, it is of extraordinary significance”.
If we take the 2007 exercise as the model, Peace Mission 2009 will also be an extraordinary event demonstrating highly sophisticated logistic structure and jointness of the various participant militaries. The exercise in 2007, which took place in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Area, and at the range of the Russian Army’s 34th Motorised Rifle Division near Chebarkul town, in Russia’s Volga-Urals Military District, remained significant as it involved a 10,300 km-long trans-national journey. Major chunk of the forces were from Russia and China, with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan sending an airborne company each, and Uzbekistan sending an airborne platoon and staff officers. The exercise had a total of 6,500 personnel and 80 aircraft from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Around 2,000 Russian, 1,700 Chinese forces, and several Russian logistical support units, also took part in the exercise. Aircraft deployed for the exercise include six Russian IL-76 transport planes, nine Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack jets, 14 Mi-24 Hind helicopter gun ships and 18 Mi-8 Hip helicopters. From the Chinese side, there were six IL-76 aircraft, eight JH-7-A fighter bombers, 16 Z-9 armed helicopters, 16 JG-9-W and 16 Mi-17 Hip helicopters. It also employed tanks, while Russia and China provided artillery support in the form of eighteen 122-mm and 100-mm artillery systems. The display of weapons at that exercise demonstrated the military superiority that the group intends to achieve.
The logistical arrangements involved in the 2007 exercise deserve a special mention, given the large-scale mass transportation of troops and weapon systems. In addition to the rail transportation, there was the Chinese army aviation unit, including 16 Mi-17 transport helicopters, from Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, flying a distance of 2,700 kms to the drill venue. This was significant in the sense that China was able to test the capability of PLA aviation troops due to the long distance that it covered as also the complicated topographic and climatic conditions on the way and possible language difficulties with the ground forces in Russia. Chen commenting on this long-distance transportation noted that “the long distance and large-scale projection in organic units with heavy weapons to overseas would render the Chinese forces a hard-won opportunity to temper the remote mobile ability.” He added that these exercises would in addition to “honing the ground forces and testing the ability of railway transportation would also steel the remote delivery ability of the Air Force and the remote mobile ability of the Army Aviation troops.” The PLA Daily reported that according to sources, this was the first time for the PLA Air Force units to participate in multinational joint military exercise in a foreign country in organic units and in such a large scale, the first time to use new-type home-made weaponry and equipment to participate in actual-troops exercise, the first time to organize the air force units to do exercise by relying on airports, training sites and various support facilities of foreign troops and the first time to participate in the exercise in a foreign country to be watched by the heads of state of several countries.
While such an extensive military exercise has only further strengthened the western (and even Indian) belief of the Chinese military might, the Chinese offer a different argument that should be given its due. Major General Wang Haiyun, a former Chinese military attaché to Russia, did speak to the PLA Daily (PLA Daily, July 25, 2007) on the exercise, where he stated that it should be seen from two specific aspects that it demonstrates the resolve within the SCO, “in clamping down on the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism,” and secondly, to “generate positive influence on regional peace and stability, and make great contributions to anti-terrorism in the world.” Further, Officer Guo Wenhui of the PLA’s General Staff noted that “it is a practical way to improve the PLA’s capability to tackle terrorist threats.” It is estimated that the Chinese PLA has had 17 joint military exercises with the troops of several countries, including the US.
While the western projection of Chinese military threat is one facet, a more interesting aspect is the Chinese use of military diplomacy as a significant tool in the conduct of its foreign policy. Matsuda Yasuhiro of the Japan-based National Institute of Defense Studies (NIDS), has detailed the various facets to China’s military diplomacy, ranging from strategic level activities that include defence consultations and strategic dialogues; arms transfers, regional activities, including state to state military protocols, opening of military bases; participation in military exercises, professional military education exchanges, besides cooperation in non-traditional security areas, like sending armed forces to counter-terrorism exercises, UN Peacekeeping operations.
While China has maintained that these exercises or multinational cooperation are a step in the fight against terrorism, several countries, including India has concerns on its real intentions. It is very clear that these exercises are meant to do a power projection of the Chinese military might, in addition to its own experiment with several new weapon systems and as well as to experiment the inter-operability of forces from different countries as also to experiment the combined use of land, air, naval and amphibious units in a joint atmosphere. The exercises are also clearly meant to gather intelligence on the kind of forces in place (particularly in the case of India, Japan and the US), understanding their defence planning and thinking, learning how other Asian nations manage their military. The exercises are also indicative of the Chinese efforts in restraining the US influence in these countries, as also to counter/extinguish any “China threat theory” that might exist in any of these countries. Meanwhile, the Chinese want the world to believe that the Chinese military diplomacy is only to support the larger foreign, diplomatic, political, economic and security agenda set forth by the leadership of the Party/State, and not on a separate, independent agenda of its own.
Lastly, if the 2009 exercise is a demonstration of a further strengthened bilateral relations between Russia and China, it has serious ramifications for the region. One explanation for the partnership could be that as China grows stronger in military, economic and political terms, Russia wants to bring Beijing under its umbrella and ensure that it does not become an adversary in its neighbourhood. On the other hand, from an Indian perspective, a strong Sino-Russian partnership could be dangerous for India in more ways than one. Firstly, it will affect Indo-Russian defence ties. These ties will get diluted in a gradual manner if Russia is not careful about the balance between its ties with Beijing and Delhi. Second, how this partnership will affect outcomes in the United Nations, especially at the Security Council, needs to be seen. Moscow might be compelled to follow Chinese line at the UN, particularly on issues concerning India such as Kashmir. The strengthened partnership will affect decision-making in several international fora. Thirdly, strengthened defence ties will be part of this particularly close relationship and the technology and defence items that are transferred to China might find their way to Pakistan. In fact, there could potentially be Russian arms floating around in other neighbouring countries too, including Sri Lanka. Such developments on India’s neighbourhood may not be very palatable to India.