Looking Forward to Peace Mission 2018
The August 2018 iteration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) Peace Mission anti-terrorism (read: military) exercise will provide important insights into how the organization’s capabilities and intentions have developed since 2016. Peace Mission 2018 will help analysts understand how the members of the SCO see the threat environment and further establish a traceable pattern for analysts and policymakers around the globe. It will also help Russia and China watchers assess the trajectory of their “coopetitive”[i] relationship. While most of the headlines leading up to Peace Mission 2018 have focused on the inclusion of India and Pakistan, this emphasis is misplaced. While certainly historic, their participation is mostly pageantry and does not add real substance to the exercise. Looking ahead to Peace Mission 2018, there are three primary topics of that should be of true interest: the size and scope of Peace Mission 2018, Uzbekistan’s participation, and China’s early messaging about the event.
Peace Mission 2018 will take place at the Cherbarkulsky Training Ground in Chelyabinsk Oblast, which is in the Central Military District on Russia’s border with Kazakhstan. The choice of Chelyabinsk Oblast, straddling the Ural Mountains, appears to signal a continued focus on anti-terrorist mountain warfare operations. Initial media reporting indicates that the exercise will be only somewhat larger than Peace Mission 2016, with at least 3,000 soldiers in total, compared to just 1,100-2,100 in 2016. This is still well under the highest count of the 7,000 soldiers at Peace Mission 2014. Central Asian news sources are also reporting that over 500 pieces of military equipment will be involved in the exercise, compared to just 300 in 2016, although the specific types and composition remain unknown. The increase in size from 2016 is likely due to the inclusion of three additional participants in Peace Mission 2018: newcomers India and Pakistan as well as long-time SCO-member Uzbekistan. The small size of the exercise, when coupled with its location, and despite three more participants support the idea that the SCO will continue to focus on counterterrorism in mountainous settings.
Interestingly, Uzbekistan will be participating in its first Peace Mission exercise since 2010. The speculative reasons for this sudden return to active participation are numerous. One likely explanation is that Uzbekistan is becoming increasingly concerned with the rise of domestic extremism as large numbers of Uzbek foreign fighters return home from conflict zones like Syria and Iraq. As a result, the government may want to bolster its anti-terrorism capabilities and rebuild regional connections if it finds the country in need of the SCO’s help in the future. After President Trump proposed reducing the majority of the United States’ assistance programs to the region in 2017, Uzbekistan may feel like it has nowhere else to turn for help enhancing its antiterrorism capabilities.
As always, one of the most important aspects of Peace Mission 2018 for China will be the narrative and optics. Looking at official statements and boilerplate media reporting leading up to the exercise is crucial to determine what China is hoping to gain from the drill. To date, statements across Chinese news wires have been equal in their parroting of Ministry of Defense spokesperson Ren Guoqiang. In a recent press release, Ren said:
“Defense and security cooperation has been smooth and effective in recent years…[and] China is willing to continue to engage in exchanges and cooperation in defense and security...on basis of mutual trust and benefit, and improve capacity to jointly cope with new challenges and threats.”
First, the choice of “smooth and effective” may help explain the trend towards smaller Peace Mission exercises since 2014. Smaller exercises mean less that can go wrong and cause Chinese soldiers to damage their 关系 / guānxi, (broadly translated as relationships), and 丢脸 / diūliăn (lose face). If this is true, it represents the growth of one of the worst habits of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) inside the SCO, treating exercises as scripted pageantry shows rather than meaningful training opportunities. Despite this pessimistic reading of Ren’s words, the second statement gives hope that the SCO will continue to develop real capabilities in Peace Mission 2018. Ren mentions “new challenges and threats,” which could hint that Peace Mission 2018 will involve a new (scripted) scenario, one that the participants are not familiar with, or a remixing of past scenarios.
While final analysis of Peace Mission 2018 must wait until the exercise concludes, initial trends appear to indicate that the organization’s members still fear the occurrence of an ISIS-like event and consequential destabilizing effects in the region. With Uzbekistan participating in a Peace Mission exercise for the first time in eight years, the threat, or threat perception, of extremism and unrest in the region boiling over may be even greater than outsiders realize. Despite the worry over unrest, however, the trends in continuity from 2016 may be symptoms of China choosing easy public relations wins over a potential loss of face. Only time will tell if Peace Mission exercises will evolve into meaningful exercises or continue to deteriorate into complex pageantry.
Daniel Urchick is a Defense Analyst and 2018 graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs. He has written for Real Clear Defense, the Diplomat, HuffPost, Small Wars Journal, and Fair Observer among other outlets. He can be found on Twitter at @danielurchick.
[i] “Coopetive” as defined and laid out by David Shambaugh in his book “China Goes Global: The Partial Power” in order to describe the duality of China’s relationship with the United States.