In mid-August, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conducted a multi-state military exercise in
Russia's Volga-Urals region, code-named "Peace-Mission 2007." The SCO allowed some 80 nations to observe rehearsal of the drill, but not the US, an omission that could command considerable outside attention, if not alarm.
The joint exercise has prompted some analysts to suggest that Moscow and Beijing are not merely creating their own "space," separate from that of the West, but are poised to shape this regional security group into a military alliance. Such speculation would be rash.
Washington's perspective about the SCO is divided: On one hand, both of the ongoing US anti-terror wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are fought close to SCO peripheries. But as the world's only regional security group that does not include direct participation of the US, SCO is also a distant force for the world's sole superpower, still in its "unipolar moment."
Peace-Mission 2007--involving some 4,000 troops and 1,000 pieces of large armament, including 80 aircraft--was unprecedented in many dimensions: It was the first SCO exercise in conjunction with its annual summit meeting, and the joint exercise involved armed forces of all of its member states--Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. China sent 1,600 troops and 45 aircraft to Russia, the longest force-projecting operation for the People's Liberation Army. SCO members not only dispatched their best units, but also practiced with more integration. For example, generals gathered in the same situation room; all units interfaced through a Russian communication mechanism; and commandos of different SCO states boarded and dropped from the same choppers.
Despite many of these "firsts," Peace-Mission 2007 was a far more realistic application of SCO's military power to its declared anti-terrorist goal. Unlike Peace-Mission 2005, a joint exercise held in China, no strategic bombers participated this time. Both sides dispatched their fighter-bombers, plus attack helicopters. On the ground, only infantry fighting vehicles and other support vehicles were involved. Because of the inland setting, naval forces did not participate. In 2005, cruise missiles were launched from submarines, while marines hit the beaches for targets that looked more like regular military than stateless transnational terrorist groups.
Beyond military-technical issues, relations among SCO members, particularly Moscow and Beijing, are perhaps not as strong or harmonious as commonly perceived. A military alliance is the least likely outcome for SCO for several reasons.
SCO is, first and foremost, a community of nations with diverse religious backgrounds of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu and Confucianism. Beyond culture, the organization is a meeting place of the East and West; democracies and non-democracies; large and small nations; and relatively developed, newly industrialized, and less developed. In more tangible terms, this loosely-held entity occupies much of the Eurasian continent and represents almost half of the world's population.
The economies of the key member and observer states relate more to the outside world than to one another: Russia's energy, China's manufacturing and India's information technology. SCO is indeed a league of its own. Such vast geographic reach and the cultural mix have many implications for both the global system and member states themselves. For the foreseeable future, expect SCO to remain preoccupied with its own issues. Decision-making may never be swift, given the equal status of its member states and the consensus-building process.
Within SCO, Moscow and Beijing may not have entirely identical interests regarding Central Asia. Moscow may be more interested in stretching SCO military and security functions because of its stronger military presence in this former Soviet space. Beijing, however, is keen in exploring SCO's economic and non-security-related potential. Although these two dimensions may supplement each other in managing regional affairs, Russia may not perceive Beijing's rapid economic advancement into the region as entirely harmless.
Given these diverse interests between Russia and China, SCO is at best an interface for Moscow and Beijing to adjust their respective interests in Central Asia. After the "best" and "worst" ties between the two Eurasian giants (alliance during the 1950s, enemies during the 1960s and 1970s), Beijing and Moscow are learning to maintain a relatively normal relationship. An alliance could take some shape only under extreme circumstances, in which the core interests of both Moscow and Beijing are perceived to be endangered by the same adversary at more or less the same time.
The current "normalcy" in Sino-Russian relations is a complex relationship with elements of both cooperation and competition, juxtaposing high-level policy convergence with considerable distrust between the two peoples as well as a lack of mutual attraction. China was seen, as recently as 2006, as the second "potential enemy" for average Russians, after the US, according to a 2007 survey by All-Russia's Center of Public Opinion. It's ironic that this was the case after 10 years of their strategic partnership and in the midst of China's Russia Year, immediately followed by Russia's China Year in 2007.
Such differences do not necessarily mean that SCO will never become a military bloc. The potential is there, but it's also crucial to recognize that the potential for not moving toward such an alliance is perhaps even greater.
Beyond SCO, Beijing and Moscow both prefer a multilateral world, yet may differ on how to achieve such a goal. Peace-Mission 2007 took place at a time of considerable tension in Moscow's relations with the West. Also, President Vladimir Putin announced publicly right after the exercise that Russia's strategic bombers would resume their routine patrolling, a move reminiscent of the Soviet Cold War practice. Beijing, however, has essentially stood by the side in this new round of Cold War-style words and postures between Russia and America. Most Chinese analysts do not expect the two former superpower rivals to return to the "bad" old days. Some have gone as far as to warn that a return to Cold War-type confrontation will severely limit, not broaden, China's strategic space because China may have to choose between the two.
It is therefore naïve to explore the current Russian-US tension. A soft-landing would serve the interests of all, according to Lu Gang, writing for Huanqiu Shibao, or Global Times, regardless of how Moscow defines the current world politics--be it one of "cold peace," in the words of former President Boris Yeltsin, or current President Putin's growing anxiety over losing Russia's "post-Soviet space."
In the long term, the Sino-Russian strategic partnership since 1996 may or may not be a reliable barometer for the future. After the disintegration of the Soviet empire, Russia was weak and disoriented. Now Russia is on its way back to achieving its traditional status as a major power on the Eurasian continent.
Perhaps more so than any other country, China must deal with such a Russia, either led by "Putin the Great," if he remains in office beyond 2008 as prime minister, or shadowed by "Putin the ghost," who works behind the scenes.
Yu Bin is senior fellow for the Shanghai Institute of American Studies and professor of political science at Wittenberg University, Ohio. Rights: © 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online