Military personnel from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are gathering for the fifth Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) 'Peace Mission' drill in North China this week.
Seven thousand personnel (around 5000 are Chinese while Russia is sending the second-biggest cohort of 900) are arriving in Zhurihe, Inner Mongolia, for the 24-29 August drill. Kazakhstan is bringing along transport planes it bought from Airbus, while Kyrgyzstan's soldiers are from special forces units trained by the US.
This year's exercise has added importance, as Russia seeks to boost the standing of the SCO while it sheds friends in the West, and as China wakes up to the threat radical Islam poses to its rule in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The focus of the exercise is combating terrorism and boosting intelligence sharing, according to Xinhua.
The degree of emphasis the SCO places on security issues is open to debate. Back when the last such drill was held in 2010, the Brookings Institute's Julie Boland wrote: 'Since the SCO was created in 2001, some commentators have assessed that China's primary focus in the SCO is on expanding its economic opportunities in Central Asia, while Russia's is on security-related issues. This is clearly in error.'
But then no drill was held for four years and China proceeded to sign billions of dollars of energy deals with SCO member-states. This year's exercises will be the biggest since 2004; it remains to be seen whether the members will use it to breathe new life into the security aspect of the bloc.
Both Russia and China may see an incentive to do so.
Russian commentators have long touted the SCO as a kind of eastern NATO, though officials have stopped short of committing the SCO to Central Asia's most obvious candidate for future security engagements — Afghanistan. This month, Russian state news outlet Ria Novosti ran a piece calling the SCO 'a new alternative to the West.' The author noted that 'a much more powerful answer (to sanctions) is the formation of a multi-polar world, the foundation of which should be blocs like the BRICS and the SCO.'
Unlike the BRICS, the SCO provides a handy framework for Russia to increase its show of military cooperation with non-Western actors. That's something even its shiny new Eurasian Economic Union doesn't provide for — Kazakhstani representatives at this year's signing ceremony explicitly rejected a military dimension to the union.
Any attempt by Russia to usurp the SCO's security agenda for political point-scoring against the West would likely be met with unease in Beijing. That said, China may not be above expanding cooperation in Central Asia as it comes to terms with the threats posed by jihadist groups to Xinjiang, its northwest autonomous region with a sizeable Uyghur Muslim population.
In mid-August, an article by Hong Kong-based Phoenix Weekly detailed revenge threats made by the Islamic State (IS) against China for 'seizing Muslim rights.' The piece went viral on the mainland. China already has an Islamist network bent on Xinjiang independence on its doorstep in Pakistan. If greater number of jihadists respond to the IS call, the SCO may find itself with a very real military purpose.