Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Joint military exercises involving troops from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will continue till August 17. More than 6,000 troops and 36 aircraft from the six nations are currently engaged in China’s far northwest Xinjiang region for two days; tomorrow they will move to Chelyabinsk, Russia. The exercises are intended to improve cooperation against terrorism, drug and weapons trafficking and criminal gangs as required by an agreement of mutual assistance against armed attacks. But the real objective is political.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Hui noted that “this is the first time that all the leaders of SCO (the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation) nations will attend the war games. All the member countries put a high value on these drills.”
Russian chief of staff General Yury Baluyevsky added that the exercises “are needed because they help the exchange of experience and the improvement of co-operation between our forces in combating new challenges and threats.” And future exercises “on a bigger scale” are planned.
China’s People's Liberation Army is deploying a 1,600-member contingent for the war games. A total of 32 Mi-17 and Z-9 helicopters will also take part, along with six heavy transport aircraft, eight attack aircraft, and a company of airborne troops.
Analysts note that China and Russia are using closer high-level diplomatic and political ties among SCO members to expand their influence in Central Asia and contain the United States.
But human rights activists have criticised the organisation for helping to repress opposition political activists in the member countries through such practices as extrajudicial transfer of “suspects” between countries.
Ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang know about it all too well. They are persecuted by Beijing which has cracked down accusing many of them of belonging to terrorist and secessionist organisations.
Beijing needs Moscow to build up its fleet. President Vladimir Putin, who comes from a naval family, appointed Admiral Masorin two years ago with instructions to upgrade the Russian navy. Although it still has about 300 ships, it was badly neglected after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Moscow recently approved a rearmament package up to 2015. Of the US$ 192 billion allocated to the programme, 25 per cent will go into building new ships, including six new nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to be built over the next 20 years.
Some analysts dismiss talk of rebuilding a navy with global reach as propaganda ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, but others suggest that it is more than bluster because Russia is now earning an estimated US$ 1 billion every two days from its energy exports, and so has the means to do it.
Moreover, India and China depend to a significant degree on Russia for their own naval needs. However, Russian naval builders have recently had problems and had to announce a three-year delay in the construction of a US$ 1.5 billion aircraft carrier for India.
For Beijing a carrier would be a fundamental addition to its navy if it wanted to stand up to the United States and secure its energy supplies (which travel through the Strait of Malacca) or even mount a possible military intervention against Taiwan.
If China decides to develop a carrier for training and eventual operation, it may use the Varyag, a Kuznetsov-class Soviet carrier that was only 70 per cent complete when the Soviet Union broke up. Although it was bought by a Chinese firm in 1998, the mainland would still require help from Russia to bring the Varyag into service.
By contrast, the US Navy today has 12 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class vessels, each over 332 metres long with 85 aircrafts on board. Their replacements will be even bigger when the first enters service in seven or eight years.
Yesterday the chiefs of staff from of the six SCO member-states met Urumqi.