April 26, 2006

China, Russia, Central Asians plan anti-terror drill

By Benjamin Kang Lim and Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - China, Russia and four Central Asian
states agreed on Wednesday to hold anti-terrorism drills in
2007, the latest step by the group to burnish its regional

The six nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO) announced the exercises, which will be held in Russia,
after a one-day meeting of their defense ministers in Beijing.

The SCO groups the formerly Soviet-controlled states of
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with regional
giants China and Russia. Mongolia, Pakistan, India and Iran are
observer countries at SCO meetings.

Founded in 2001 from a looser association set up in 1996,
the group is seen by some -- in Moscow at least -- as a balance
to U.S. influence in the region, though Russia's defense
minister on Wednesday stressed it was not a military or
political bloc.

"Using arms to face terrorists is not aimed at any third
country. It is to maintain regional peace and stability,"
Sergei Ivanov told a news conference. "The SCO is not a
military alliance. But, according to its charter, it has the
right to use arms to react to any challenge, like terrorism."

Niklas Swanstrom, director of the Contemporary Silk Road
Studies Programme at Sweden's Uppsala University, said SCO
members were divided by long-standing rivalries but united by
fears of domestic threats, including militant Islamist groups.

He said that, unlike the West, China and Russia sympathize
with the problems that the region's often harshly authoritarian
states face with militants.

For Beijing, the SCO has become a vehicle for bolstering
its increasingly prominent security and economic interests in
Central Asia while reassuring Moscow, the region's traditional

Beijing's strategic stake in Central Asia is also
underpinned by energy, with the region expected to supply
energy-famished China with growing volumes of gas and oil.

"Central Asia is the backyard of Russia, but China is
making extremely aggressive inroads," Swanstrom said.

Last year, Beijing welcomed Uzbekistan President Islam
Karimov just two weeks after a crackdown against protests in
his country that independent observers say may have killed


SCO member nations, except Uzbekistan, first staged joint
military drills in 2003 in China's far northwestern Xinjiang
region and Kazakhstan, which were also "anti-terror" exercises.

China and Russia held joint exercises in China last August,
the only time the former Cold War foes' armies have cooperated
on any significant scale since the Korean War in the 1950s.

Those maneuvers -- officially aimed at quelling ethnic
conflicts and resisting any interference by a "third force," an
apparent reference to the United States -- were seen as a sign
that the SCO had begun to show some teeth after a low-key

The SCO has a mandate to combat "terrorism" and Islamic
radicalism across the region, including opposition groups that
Central Asian states treat as threats to their control.

China says it is threatened by terrorism in Xinjiang, home
to over 8 million Uighurs, a largely Islamic people who share
linguistic and cultural bonds with neighboring Central Asia.

Many Uighurs resent the growing Han Chinese presence in
Xinjiang, as well as strict controls on religion and culture.

"The (SCO) governments strongly support China against the
Uighurs," said Swanstrom.

The London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International said
two Uighur men from Xinjiang who have been detained in
Kazakhstan since last year risk being tortured or sentenced to
death if they are repatriated and convicted of serious crimes.

One is accused of separatism, while the other fled China
after protesting against the strict family planning policy and
harsh working conditions during mandatory state labor, it said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard)