Russian and Chinese troops are joining forces this week in the first military exercises by an international organisation that is regarded in some quarters as a potential rival to Nato.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and 2500 combat vehicles will take part in “Peace Mission 2007”, organised by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the Chelyabinsk region of Russia. Russian officials have also proposed an alliance between the SCO and a body representing most of the former Soviet republics.
Untold scores of Russian and Chinese aircraft begin joint exercises tomorrow before a week of military manoeuvres from Thursday that will include Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. At least 6,500 troops are involved in what is described as an antiterror exercise.
Colonel-General Vladimir Moltenskoi, the deputy commander of Russian ground forces, said: “The exercise will involve practically all SCO members for the first time in its history.”
Staff officers from Uzbekistan, the sixth SCO member, will also attend in what is being regarded as a major extension of the organisation’s capabilities. The SCO was founded as a nonmilitary alliance in 2001 to combat drugs and weapons smuggling as well as terrorism and separatism in the region. It has since developed a role in regional trade and is increasingly regarded by Moscow and Beijing as a counterweight to US global influence.
The secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) called last week for joint military exercises with the SCO. Nikolai Bordyuzha said that the body representing Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan should work with the SCO to guarantee security across the region. Mr Bordyuzha has already announced a CSTO plan to create a large military force capable of assisting a member state in the event of an attack. A rapid-reaction force is already based in Central Asia and there are plans for a common air defence system covering most of the former Soviet Union.
Leaders of SCO member states will meet in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, next week for their annual summit. Turkmenistan will also attend for the first time, while Mongolia, Iran, India and Pakistan have observer status.
Igor Ivanov, the head of Russian security, played down concerns in May that the SCO was evolving into a military alliance to counter the expansion of Nato into Asia as part of the War on Terror. But MPs on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee expressed fears last year that the West could be on a collision course in the struggle for energy resources with “an authoritarian bloc opposed to democracy” that was based on an alliance between China and Russia.
A newly assertive Russia, flush with oil and gas revenues, is moving rapidly to increase its military capability amid tensions with the West over missile defence and Nato expansion. Almost £100 billion has been set aside for rearmament over the next eight years.