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Eurasia: U.S. Security Expert Talks About SCO Exercises, Summit

By Bruce Pannier

August 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Stephen Blank is a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute who has written extensively on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). RFE/RL spoke with Blank about the SCO military exercises currently under way in China and Russia and the upcoming SCO summit in Bishkek.

Stressing that his comments did not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U.S. Army War College or the U.S. Department of Defense, Blank questioned the stated goals of the SCO's Peace Mission 2007 counterterrorism exercises, and he provided some insight into what could happen when the region's leaders gather in Kyrgyzstan on August 16.

RFE/RL: Representatives from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have repeatedly said the organization's military cooperation is not aimed at any third country or party, yet the military exercises seem to be growing in size. Wouldn't this trend naturally be a cause of concern for the U.S. or NATO?

Stephen Blank: Certainly it would be. But although the SCO's representatives always say that it's not aimed at a third country or party, if you look at their communiques going back to 2001 -- and even before that to the Sino-Russian communiques and the formation of the six-party border agreements -- their communiques have always been full of coded anti-American foreign policy statements. So for Russia and China, it's aimed at American interests. And the size of these exercises is growing, and many experts do not believe that they are confined only to so-called antiterrorist activities, or even just to Central Asia. The August 2005 Sino-Russian exercises, which were conducted under the auspices of the SCO, were so large and [they] so thoroughly combined arms and major-theater conventional warfare in their approach, that people believed these were aimed as much at Taiwan and Korea as they were at any potential Central Asian contingency.

RFE/RL: Though the military exercises are always drills in counterterrorism, to date (eds: so far) not one of the countries in the SCO has ever requested help by invoking mutual assistance agreements. Are there any grounds for believing any of the SCO countries would ever make such a request, and if so, what sort of circumstances could you foresee that would lead to such a move?

Blank: At least hypothetically, there are grounds for thinking that something like that could happen; I think it would happen if you had an uprising against the government. And I think what galvanizes this on the part of China and Russia is that they were not able to do anything on behalf of Kyrgyzstan in 2005 (March 2005, when President Askar Akaev was ousted) and they've resolved never to be caught short again. And in Russia's case, they've established air bases; and a contingency whereby they gain access to the air base at Navoi [in central Uzbekistan] would appear to be an insurgency against the [Islam] Karimov government. So hypothetically one may think that the possibility of a state calling for help would be either if there's a massive popular insurgency -- which could happen in a succession crisis, I suppose -- or if a government loses control of a situation. Or if there was a major terrorist attack, which I think is quite an implausible scenario anytime soon. What's more, the size of these operations clearly suggests that they are intended for something beyond Central Asia.

RFE/RL: Chinese media are reporting the Chinese forces involved in the Peace Mission 2007 exercises represent the largest deployment of Chinese forces abroad for a peacetime military exercises. What does China gain from such involvement?

Blank: First of all, [the Chinese] get the experience of maneuvers and exercises, which is invaluable for a military. Second, they get to see Russian weapons in action and to test their own weapons and their own command structures. So you get all these operational benefits. And when you talk about large forces, you get to see how well you can handle large forces and combined forces in an operation of major size. Third, they continue to demonstrate their power and influence in Central Asia and to promote the SCO as a viable security organization.

RFE/RL: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan [but not Uzbekistan] are reportedly sending units to participate in the Peace Mission 2007 exercises. What do the Central Asian countries get from this participation?

Blank: To the extent that they participate, they get the same benefits that the Chinese do -- they get to see the quality and capability of their military forces and learn about new trends in operational command and control of forces and the tactical benefits of doing these kind of operations. As far as the political benefits, it reinforces the certainty that if the scenario they're discussing -- which is if a terrorist takeover of a country -- takes place, that they will not be left in a lurch -- although, as I said, there's not much likelihood of a takeover.

RFE/RL: What does Russia get?

Blank: [Russians] are constantly obsessed with proving that they're a big power. As one of my colleagues said, it's a "phantom empire syndrome" [in which] they have to constantly tell themselves that they're a great power and that they're taken seriously and that they're a real power and demonstrate this to everybody. So that's important to them. They get all the operational benefits that everybody else does. And third, it's an attempt to convince everyone that they are the main player north of the border (north of Central Asia).

RFE/RL: What about the size of the military exercises? There will be some 6,500 troops and 80 aircraft involved. Isn't that a bit much for a counterterrorism exercise?

Blank: I think the size of these [exercises] indicates that these are not -- strictly speaking -- antiterrorist operations, although they're billed as such. They are clearly, in the Russian and perhaps in the Chinese mind as well, operations that they think they may have to carry out against larger forces than just terrorists. And I think that -- like in 2005 (joint exercises), where they were looking at a Taiwanese scenario and perhaps a Korean scenario, either a state collapse in North Korea or even a U.S. invasion, which they were afraid of -- I think that they're thinking about the possibility of a contingency in Asia where they might have to contend with the threat of an American intervention.

RFE/RL: So the numbers of troops and equipment seem excessive for a counterterrorism exercise?

Blank: That's ridiculous; that's not a counterterrorist operation, that's a full-scale theater operation. And this is an exercise. So if we were dealing with a real contingency, you can imagine how many forces they would have -- multiple of those numbers.

Bishkek Summit

RFE/RL: What do you think will be the biggest accomplishment or agreement to come out of the SCO summit in Bishkek next week?

Blank: I think that they're going to try to expand the membership and write a new charter for the organization. I think that they're going to want to bring Turkmenistan into the operation if it wants to join. Second, I think they are going to write a new charter that will probably be even more anti-American than before. I'm not sure that India, Iran, Pakistan, or Mongolia will become members. If you take India, they are going to have to [accept] Pakistan, that would have to be a compromise. Iran is another question altogether, and I'm not sure that Iran is going to be admitted as a member, although Iran certainly wants it. But I would concentrate on three things: One is the membership; one is the new charter; and I'd also expect the Russians to push the idea of an energy organization, the gas cartel, which [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been pushing throughout the year. I think that he's going to make a major effort to push that further at the Bishkek summit as well.

RFE/RL: But won't there be 'hurt feelings' from India, Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia because they have been trying to get into the SCO for years and Turkmenistan suddenly is invited to the summit and admitted so quickly?

Blank: I think that there might be hurt feelings, but politically it's very difficult. There has to be a trade-off. India and Pakistan coming in means that Russia has to agree to Pakistan and China [has to agree] to India. Maybe they will, but it's still a tough compromise that has to be worked out. Mongolia, I think, presents fewer problems and might be brought in. Iran is altogether a different issue, because the Iranians want to get in there because the centerpiece of Iranian foreign policy has been an attempt to enlist Russia and China on their side -- and to a considerable degree they have succeeded. But now the Russians have shown this year that they are increasingly suspicious of Iranian ambitions and aims. And last year, [Russian Defense Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister] Sergei Ivanov talked about the question of Iranian membership in very disparaging terms. Iran would probably use this as an attempt to invoke the treaty charter for self-defense if an American or some other attack came against it, and the Russians already made it clear that they would be neutral -- they would not intervene in an American military attack on Iran, although they oppose it strongly. So taking Iran into the organization creates some difficulties on a very significant level.

RFE/RL: Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is attending the summit. What role if any could Turkmenistan play in the SCO? Do you see any possibility that Turkmenistan would someday be admitted as a member, and, if so, what would that mean for the countries that have been trying to receive full membership (India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan)? What would Turkmenistan's membership mean for the Turkmen government's official policy of "positive neutrality"?

Blank: The new government led by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is much more vigorous in its foreign policy activities. It's conducting a much more robust foreign policy, and it's already been announced that [Berdymukhammedov] will be attending and that he was invited to the meeting. I don't think he would be invited unless something was going to come down, so I do think that there's going to be some movement on Turkmenistan at this session.

RFE/RL: The summit is in Bishkek, and there are both a U.S. and Russian (technically CSTO) military base in Kyrgyzstan. Do you think some attention will be devoted to the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan, perhaps a repeat of calls from the 2005 summit that preceded the U.S. withdrawal from the base in Uzbekistan?

Blank: I don't expect there to be a public attack on the base, because the compromise that appears to have been reached is that the Kyrgyz would not threaten the status of the (Manas) base as long as the situation in Afghanistan is unstable; and in 2005 the Russians were saying, "There's no problem in Afghanistan; it's all over but the cheering." But [now] that's certainly not the case. The Russian and the Chinese have been bringing enormous pressure on the Kyrgyz to push the U.S. out of there, but the Kyrgyz will keep the base there I think as long as the Afghan situation is unstable. Privately, I suspect there will be some tough discussions about that, but I don't expect this to be reflected in the public documents at the conference. I do expect the Russians and Chinese to keep pushing to get the United States out of Central Asia, which of course raises the question of just how committed Russia is to supporting the U.S. in the war on terrorism.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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