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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The 'Peace Mission'

The world will understandably have some questions Thursday when Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Vladimir Putin meet at Garrison Chebarkul, located in the Chelyabinsk region near the Ural mountains, to review troops from both their countries, as well as four Central Asian states. The event will commemorate the end of maneuvers called Peace Mission 2007, and it raises some important questions. Does this exercise signal a stepping up of already substantial military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing? And if it does, cooperation against what or whom?

The answer to the first question is clearly yes, cooperation is increasing. This year's exercises involved about 4,000 troops and 100 aircraft from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a threefold increase in participants over Peace Mission 2005, held in China. This year's exercises, conducted from Aug. 8 to 17, included full-fledged conventional air-ground offensive maneuvers that stressed ground and airborne assault, and coordinated air strikes by attack aircraft and helicopters. Russian and Chinese reporting thus far indicates the maneuvers were directed against "terrorist" strongholds in rural and urban settings.

Less clear is against what or whom the show of force was directed. The military exercises are sponsored by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an intergovernmental group founded with Chinese help to promote worthy goals of cooperation and peace in former Soviet Central Asia. In practice, however, the organization's priorities have evolved over time, and its top mission now seems to be to stop overt Islamic identification among the peoples of the region, who are mostly ethnically Turkic and traditionally Muslim.

If one includes the currently Chinese-held territory of Xinjiang, Central Asia covers about 5 million square kilometers in the strategic heart of Eurasia, populated by peoples who have never willingly accepted rule either from Moscow or Beijing. It is rich in resources, notably oil and natural gas. But they are not secure. Change in an Islamic direction, which is possible -- even likely -- will spell trouble. For now Central Asia's rulers share China's and Russia's fear of Islamic extremism.

To begin with, Peace Mission 2007 is a cooperative exercise by the rulers of the Central Asian states, supported by China and Russia, designed to prevent political instability. But that is not all. It also reveals a worrying pattern of cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, broadly speaking, against the West and democratic ideas.

In July, the SCO decided to draw up a shared list of proscribed organizations, to include terrorists of course, but also, Western human rights advocates fear, democracy advocates.

Beijing evidently wishes to minimize attention to its increasing long-distance force projection abilities, demonstrated in, but not limited to, Central Asia. The Chinese contingent included 1,600 to 1,700 airborne and ground troops plus associated lightweight armor and about 36 aircraft. Not large numbers to be sure, but this is the first ever foreign deployment for the Chinese Army of such a combined arms group.

Most Western analysts have been skeptical that Beijing harbored such large ambitions. The operations in Peace Mission suggest China does -- a possibility supported by other evidence. China is refurbishing the former Russian aircraft carrier Varyag and planning its own carrier force. A military air-lifter is being developed that could carry 60 tons of cargo, similar to the U.S. C-17. In December, the Chinese Navy launched a 20,000-ton landing platform dock amphibious assault ship. In May, a Chinese shipbuilding official admitted to me their development of a landing helicopter dock air-amphibious assault ship.

New Chinese airlifters and new medium-weight wheeled airmobile fighting vehicles being produced by the Chinese military will give it a future army-airborne projection capability that would nicely compliment Russia's. Peace Mission 2007, in fact, resembled the coordinated operations needed to shore up a tottering dictatorship, much as Soviet forces did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. This follows the 2005 Peace Mission exercises, which demonstrated air and naval capabilities the Chinese military needs to attack Taiwan.

But the SCO's ability to develop a deeper military alliance is not certain. Russian news reports said China rejected Russia's proposal to co-host the exercises with the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, indicating that currently coincidental Russian-Chinese security agendas could easily diverge. Russia-friendly Kazakhstan did not allow Chinese troops to travel across its territory, adding thousands of kilometers to their journey. The SCO must soon also face the question of whether or not to make full members of current observers India, Pakistan and Iran --a nuclear-armed democracy, a nuclear-armed failed state and a future nuclear-armed rogue state, respectively.

All in all, Peace Mission 2007 provides plenty of reason for concern. It highlights the direct military interest Russia and China are taking in Central Asia, an area of which the United States and Europe know very little. Even more worrying, the Chinese role in the exercise provides yet more evidence of the dimensions of Chinese military ambitions and capabilities, the potential targets of which are by no means limited to Central Asian Muslims.

Richard D. Fisher Jr. is vice president with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia. This comment appeared in The Wall Street Journal.