Alisha Sud is the intern for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Growing concern over terrorism in Asia is driving Beijing to strengthen the military capability of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Committed to fighting the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism, the intergovernmental organization has recently demonstrated that it is a power to be reckoned with; last month in Inner Mongolia, China hosted the largest SCO military drill to date.
Over the past few decades, there has been a dramatic shift in the way regional security is handled in Central Asia. After the Soviet collapse of 1991, the freshly independent Central Asian countries managed security through bilateral agreements with Russia. In 2001, counter-terrorism operations were turned into a multilateral effort when the SCO was created by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Since then, China has not only been hosting training drills but also sharing equipment, resources, and military intelligence with SCO members. Letting armed forces from neighboring nations enter China’s tightly monitored borders to participate in the military drills speaks to how seriously Chinese President Xi Jinping is taking perceived threats to national and regional security as well as his commitment to becoming a regional leader in anti-terrorism efforts. In fact, at the SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan this past September, President Xi proposed that SCO members sign a convention to fight extremism in the region in exchange for China supplying US$5 billion for joint projects. In addition, the SCO is seeking to expand its reach by granting observer states, including Pakistan and India, full member status in the next few years.
What are the driving forces behind this shift and China’s rise as a regional leader? For one, with the United States’ imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the future stability of Central Asia is uncertain and Xi is feeling pressure to act fast. SCO members are developing a plan and implementation strategy to stop extremism and drug trafficking from permeating the borders of the war torn country. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has suggested the idea of establishing an intra-SCO dialogue on the future of Afghanistan to ensure peace and prevent fighting like that on the Tajik-Afghan border.
Xi has also voiced concern over the increasingly restive Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The Chinese Communist Party believes that members of the Muslim Uyghur minority are separatists, and Beijing has been cracking down on religious freedom, imposing internet bans, and jailing politically moderate activists, the most recent being Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur professor of economics at Beijing’s Minzu University. In response, Xinjiang, also known as East Turkestan, has seen multiple terror attacks over the past few years. Attacks beyond Xinjiang’s borders, like the one at a Kunming train station, are reason for Beijing’s leaders to worry that, in solidarity with fundamentalist groups in China, extremist groups operating within Central Asia and the Middle East will become a threat. This summer, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi directly addressed the situation in China when he released a statement which read: “Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, and Palestine…Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades.”
China also has much to gain from long-term peace in Central Asia economically. Xi has proposed a “Silk Road Economic Belt,” extending from China through Central Asia to Europe, in hopes that the entire Eurasian continent will someday be connected by trade routes, with China at the center of activity. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a vital component of this network, and the viability of this project is jeopardized if local separatists or jihadist groups have easy access to western China through newly built infrastructure. Increased military cooperation is one way to establish closer relations with Central Asian governments and ensure that China has free reign to establish the Silk Road Economic Belt.
China, a nation with a history of isolation and disengagement from regional (let alone international) politics, does not reach out so easily in search of cooperation and mutual trust. Yet, this is exactly what Beijing is now doing in Central Asia. Perhaps this is a precursor to what China is planning for the future of the region—security must grow in order to protect expanding economic interests.