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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Misconceptions About the SCO  

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When Russia and China held their first joint air, ground, and sea exercises in 2005, many observers saw it as a thinly veiled attempt by China to threaten Taiwan and an even less subtle effort by Russia to curry favor and additional arms sales with China. But the follow-up exercises, called Peace Mission 2007, which were held last week in the Chelyabinsk region, reveal that the real focus of the military cooperation between these giants is another prize -- Central Asia.

The announced purpose of Peace Mission 2007, as in 2005, was to improve anti-terrorist cooperation under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Central Asian regional structure conceived by Russia and China at the end of the 1990s.

This year's Peace Mission made clear that Russia and China are locked in a concerted effort to create a Central Asian security structure: one which notably does not include the United States.

The SCO (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) has been considered by many observers a mostly economic forum, but since its inception it has also had a serious security focus. At the organization's inaugural summit in June 2001, President Vladimir Putin told assembled Central Asian leaders that the newly formed alliance should concentrate its work on security, economics and anti-terror cooperation. Long before the United States took its own military action in Afghanistan in 2001, Russia and China had begun their closest defense cooperation in decades to combat Islamic extremists operating in Central Asia who were supporting separatist Chechens in southern Russia and Muslim Uighurs in western China. For Russia especially, Central Asia today remains a dangerous place, where all 12 of Russia's basic external threats identified in its military doctrine are present including: international terrorism, regional instability, and the presence of foreign -- that is, U.S. -- military formations.

The large-scale Peace Mission exercises in 2005 and 2007 mirror less-publicized cooperative activities between internal police forces and security agencies. Chinese border troops have conducted several counter terrorist exercises under the SCO with neighboring Central Asian states including a Kazakh-Chinese exercise in August 2006. Russian police conduct joint exercises with their Chinese and SCO counterparts aimed at suppressing separatist movements. Altogether these activities increase the integration of SCO member states, which would be a positive contribution to regional stability and the broader war on terror -- except that it is an integration that excludes U.S. participation. Despite the inclusion of Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia as observers, the SCO has thus far rebuffed U.S. diplomatic efforts to participate in its activities. In fact, in 2005 the SCO states called for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Central Asia. Uzbekistan closed the U.S. base there later that year, but the United States still maintains an airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

At the latest SCO summit, which took place last week in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan as the Peace Mission exercise wound down, Chinese President Hu Jintao attempted to put more distance between the SCO and the United States when he said, "The SCO nations have a clear understanding of the threats faced by the region and thus must ensure their security themselves."

Washington cannot afford to misunderstand the direction Moscow and Beijing are taking the Central Asian states in this emerging security structure. The SCO will deepen reliance between the member states and increase the leadership of Russia and China in maintaining security in Central Asia -- a role that seeks to elbow out U.S. involvement in the region. If the United States is to win the battle against Islamic extremists, it must remain engaged not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also throughout Central Asia.

Retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan is a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center and former U.S. defense attache to Russia.