Looking Towards The SCO Peace Mission 2016

Looking Towards The SCO Peace Mission 2016
Looking Towards The SCO Peace Mission 2016
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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) Peace Mission exercises have always invoked skepticism among Western observers due to their large scale and similarity to more traditionally defined military exercises. This has largely been a classic case of mirror imaging in the West.[1] China and the SCO have traditionally held a much broader definition of terrorism than the West; labeling any actor with the potential to threaten the authority of the government “terrorist.” The 2014 Peace Mission simulated a “terrorist” actor taking over a city, while possessing an armored force as well as an air force, and launching a coup. 

It could be argued that SCO member states have tacitly pledged to assist each other against any attempt to overthrow the current governments via large scale social unrest, secessionist movements, high intensity insurgency, or even all out civil war. It is easier to join together in this endeavor by labeling all opposing forces under the terrorist umbrella. Chinese and Russian rhetoric would suggest that much of this worry is a result of real or perceived Western influence on past similar events. In the case of the SCO’s Central Asian members, large-scale civil wars are a very real concern. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are all of advanced age and lines of succession are not clear for any of these nation. China, just as much as Russia, would want any new leader’s government to be on their side of shifting world power dynamics.

The Peace Mission series are the SCO’s primary tool for practicing what they have preached, so to speak. The SCO is projected to run its latest iteration of the traditional bi-annual exercise roughly from September 5th to the 13th in the western region of Issky-Kul, Kyrgyzstan.[2] The Peace Mission exercises remain an important but often ignored analytical opportunity for those seeking to understand the SCO, as well as China and its possible intentions as it continues to evolve on the world stage.

With the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as the embodiment of the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism that the SCO has worked so diligently to eliminate, these exercises have gained a new sense of legitimacy. The plausibility of one of the Central Asian member states losing a city to an uprising is now all too real. The 2014 Peace Mission simulated an ISIS like terrorist organization taking over a city and possessing both armored and air forces. A potential conflict, augmented by pilfered military stocks (such as in Libya), quickly spilling across borders (as it did in Syria) is the SCO’s worst nightmare manifested. China is especially fearful that its porous western border, combined with an ineffective local government response, could result in the loss of an ethnic Uighur population center, lighting the growing tinderbox that is Xinjiang Autonomous Province.

While the SCO’s military exercises take place under the aegis of anti-terrorism, there is an undeniable Thomas Schelling like dimension to the SCO’s peace mission exercises. A Chinese Defense Ministry representative declared that the drill would help deter the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism by strengthening the militaries’ ability to coordinate counter-terrorism operations.[3] Anti-terrorism, in the broad Chinese definition, has become the cover for traditional signaling efforts. With a pervasive belief among SCO states that the revolutions that have spread across the Eurasian landmass are backed by western powers, strong military exercises, even in the name of anti-terrorism, serve as a signal to potential meddling nations that the organization is willing and capable of responding in force to their machinations.[4]

Aside from the advantages offered to the broader SCO, the Peace Mission series has several noticeable military advantages for China and the PLA itself.

Conducting complex exercises, such as the Peace Mission scenarios, alongside other militaries gives the PLA an opportunity to benchmark its capabilities against other regional actors. Currently, this is an opportunity that is only available to China through the SCO.[5] Unlike Russia, who also has Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) exercises, China has remained pensive about expanding cooperative large-scale drills outside of the SCO and its bi-lateral endeavors with Russia. This makes the Peace Mission exercise series and its substance that much more important for China.

Such exercises also help promote transparency of capabilities and mutual trust amongst SCO members, helping ease the fears of a traditionally paranoid PLA. This transparency helps dampen potential security concerns between Russia and China, the traditional leader and junior leader of the group. In the future the Peace Mission exercises could help promote or enhance understanding between India and China as well.

The Peace Mission exercises also allow PLA officers to see the larger world, which then gives them a deeper and better understanding of current security dynamics, making them better leaders and planners. These kinds of opportunities are essential for a Chinese military that may look to take on greater regional security leadership roles.

Gauging progress in personal development, technology development, and doctrinal development in realistic settings is another important advantage of the SCO’s exercises for the PLA. Increasing the training of its forces has been key to building a modern military force for the PLA. Chinese forces across all branches need every possible hour of realistic combat training. The Peace Mission series appears to pay close attention to joint operations at the least, and integrated operations to a lesser extent.

The Peace Mission series allows China to practice joint operations or even integrated operations to a limited extent, helping make coalition warfare a possible capability for the PLA in the future. Peace Mission 2014 saw member nations working together (but not really integrated) to eject an ISIS-like terrorist actor and coup launcher from a city. Looking into the future, the Peace Mission exercises could be the proto-base of coalition-style warfare in the region for China. However, due to the PLA’s current military culture, this particular advantage does not yet appear to be fully exploited by the military.

The PLA benefits from the Peace Mission series a great deal but the SCO is not perfect and there is room for sustainable improvement on China’s end as well. Many of these negatives effects are only potential rather than realized at this point.

Coalition warfare to any degree will likely remain difficult for China. The large difference in sizes of the participating SCO member’s contingents in the exercises is a troublesome sign that this will remain the case. There have not been enough non-PLA participants in previous exercises to create true coalition warfare settings. This issue then leads into the PLA’s lack of consistent and realistic combat training, feeding into a vicious performance cycle.

PLA culture and the large dominance of Chinese forces in the exercises could also predispose Chinese military commanders to a sense of superiority over smaller SCO members in an actual conflict. The 2014 exercise consisted of at least 7,000 military personal.[6] Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan contributed several hundred troops apiece compared to 1,000 from Russia and the other 5,000 from China. Uzbekistan is not expected to participate in the 2016 exercise, a common theme for the aloof country. Uzbekistan, who did not participate in Peace Mission 2014, has only participated in one Peace Mission exercise, held in 2007.[7] Chinese attitudes of superiority have been a constant detriment to its ability to woo nations in foreign policy initiatives. This same attitude towards burden sharing in the region could easily turn military cooperation into a dysfunctional operation.

The operational problems of coalition warfare are further compounded by the real possibility of China having different strategic-level objectives and priorities compared to other SCO nations despite official common interests. That is, China’s strong self-interest is likely to be the priority no matter the SCO’s anti-terrorism and pro-government objectives. Contradictory strategic or operational objectives between Russia and China, or China and the SCO nation the conflict was occurring in, would again be detrimental to success of the campaign no matter the amount of joint-operations practice. For example, who and what China would wish to protect in a new Tajikistan civil war may not be the same objectives of the Tajik government or even Russia if it was involved. Chinese military planners may decide to seal their Xinjiang border, providing minimal to no operational help; or to support a pro-China faction the rest of the organization does not support. China may then be keen to use its status as the major force provider to impose its own desired objectives upon its partners. A complex proxy war could possibly manifest in the region in such conditions.

China’s involvement in the SCO is unique amongst its numerous organizational memberships. The Middle Kingdom helped found the organization and has been the primary leader of the group even when it has avoided taking on greater international security commitments. Those wishing to better understand China and its evolution on the world stage should look at how the SCO and the PLA inside of it evolve more often than not. The seeds of potential cooperative regional leadership are planted there, not in the South China Sea or East China Sea.


[1] ‘Political psychologists define mirror imaging as the common human tendency to assume that other actors share one’s own values, perceptions, and calculations.’ “Will America’s “Power Play” in Asia Backfire?,” World Politics News Review, November 26, 2011, https://worldpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/tag/mirror-imaging/

[2] Ivan Marchenko, “Issyk-Kul region prepares for Peace Mission-2016 SCO exercises,” 24 News Agency, June 22, 2016, http://www.eng.24.kg/community/180922-news24.html

[3] Richard Weitz, “SCO Security Cooperation Has Multiple Motives,” Hudson Institute, September 25, 2014,  http://www.hudson.org/research/10667-sco-security-cooperation-has-multiple-motives

[4] Richard Weitz, “Analyzing Peace Mission 2014: China and Russia exercise with the Central Asian States,” Second Line of Defense, October 08, 2014, http://www.sldinfo.com/analyzing-peace-mission-2014-china-and-russia-exercise-with-the-central-asian-states/

[5] Richard Weitz, “Analyzing Peace Mission 2014: China and Russia exercise with the Central Asian States,” Second Line of Defense, October 08, 2014, http://www.sldinfo.com/analyzing-peace-mission-2014-china-and-russia-exercise-with-the-central-asian-states/

[6] Shannon Tiezzi, “China Hosts SCO’s Largest-Ever Military Drills,” The Diplomat, August 29, 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/08/china-hosts-scos-largest-ever-military-drills/

[7] Roger McDermott, “Uzbekistan Snubs SCO Peace Mission 2012,” Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 116, June 19, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=39512&no_cache=1#.V4uR8LgrKCg 



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