SCO: NATO of the East

As in physics, in defence and security too, there is a universal law which states that every action always has an equal and opposite reaction. The break up of the Soviet Union in 1989 led to prediction of demise of Russian power and invincibility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Two decades later, NATO is increasingly mired in the bogs of Afghanistan while a challenger is emerging from the ashes of the Soviet military might, the SCO.

SCO or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was founded in Shanghai on June 15, 2001 by six nations, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The main themes of the SCO Charter are to enhance mutual trust, friendship and good neighborliness, multidisciplinary cooperation in peace, security and stability, promotion of a new democratic, fair and rational political and economic international order and joint counteraction against terrorism, separatism and extremism. A majority of these are in the field of security, thereby indicating that the organization is primarily a security biased grouping. 

However so far the power of the SCO was severely constrained by limitations in its principal engines of power, Russia and China. Russia's new found economic and military might and China's growing interests in Central Asia given the energy fountains and 1 million Uighurs in the region made it inevitable that the SCO would soon gravitate towards security. China is extremely sensitive to an uprising by Uighurs in the region who are ethnic Muslims settled in its Western most province, Xingjian or East Turkistan as is called by the dissidents. More over most Central Asian states are power houses of global energy and with the addition of observers as Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia, the grouping is assuming far greater clout than what was envisaged when it was formed six years ago. With the United States rapidly gaining influence in Central Asia by pumping in aid, Russo-Chinese foray was more than anticipated.

That the SCO was also actually attempting to create a NATO of the East however became evident with the conduct of a major joint regional exercise, 'Peace Mission 2007' from 9 to 17 August, which culminated simultaneously with the SCO Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The exercise was touted as a counter terrorist drill. However skeptics doubt this assertion, the scale of the maneuvers as per Eurasia editor Matthew Clements was far too large to be denoted as a counter terrorist exercise. This may bear some validity given that over 6500 troops mainly from Russia and China with company sized sub units from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan and platoons and observers from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan participated in it. More over the exercise setting represented not just neutralizing a terrorist strike but countering a major attack on a regime.

The participation levels in the exercise were fairly high. Russia had army and attack aviation troops, units of the Ground and Airborne Troops from the United Army Group and units of the Interior Troops, the Federal Security Service, and the Federal Penitentiary Service. In numbers these comprised of 4,700 soldiers, 2,000 for the drills and 2700 for logistics, 36 aircraft, Mi-8, Mi-24 and Mi-28N helicopters and Su-25 fighters. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) participated with 1,700 officers and soldiers and a host of aircraft. Tajikistan and Kazakhstan had a more modest participation of 200 soldiers each but these were specialised paratroopers, while Kyrgyzstan had an air assault platoon. Uzbekistan provided staff officers to run the exercise. Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia were also represented by military attaches from Moscow. 400 journalists were also present but reportedly mostly from non Western countries. The Commander of the Exercise was Colonel-General Vladimir Moltenskoi, from Russia, while Deputy Commander Major-General Qian Lihua of the Chinese PLA.

Such a large and diverse contingent of troops had not been mustered in the area ever before denoting that the SCO was coming of age. In the South, the NATO again comprising of forces from many countries though numbering a much larger strength of about 40,000 is in live combat against the Taliban. So is the SCO evolving as a NATO in the East? At present it does not have a permanent infra structure, doctrine or network to conduct integrated operations. Political support to such a force is also lacking. However it is seen that from a common policy of mutual aid evolved in 2006, the SCO states have within a short time graduated towards conduct of a multilateral exercise. The road ahead seems to denote establishment of a possible regional conflict control mechanism, mutual assistance treaty or compact and thereafter temporary and later a permanent standing security organization on the lines of NATO. Resources may remain the only constraint, but with both China and Russia increasingly willing to invest more on security, this should also not be a limitation in the years ahead. After all Newton's Third law of motion as we have seen also applies to security. 


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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