The effects of the Tiananmen Square incident continue to ripple through China, but surprisingly little has been said about what China has done in the field of counterterrorism. A vehicle ran through crowds of tourists and was lit on fire in front of the entrance to the Forbidden City under the gaze of Chairman Mao Zedong’s portrait. Official Chinese media have labeled this incident a terrorist attack and made links with the mysterious East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) with alleged ties to al-Qaeda and transnational jihadist elements. If the official narrative is to be believed, this marks a milestone in the history of terrorism in China: the effects of terrorism in the PRC’s restive west, long trumpeted by Beijing as the justification for its “strike hard” campaigns and strict regulation of the region, have now touched China’s east.
China’s policies in Xinjiang are well documented by Western and Chinese analysts alike. On the one hand, those who doubt the official line about Uyghur jihadists fomenting insurgency in Xinjiang point to socioeconomic discrimination, a lack of religious freedom, and Han-Uyghur ethnic tensions as the drivers of the region’s conflicts. On the other, those who accept the official line oftentimes place the “Uyghur issue” in the classic framework of liberty versus security. While curbing freedoms in Xinjiang for Uyghurs is unfortunate, so the logic goes, it is a necessary evil for the sake of stability. Setting this controversial debate aside, if China is truly concerned with a terrorist threat, what has it done to develop counterterrorist capabilities?
The most prominent Chinese efforts to develop counterterrorist capabilities lies in joint military exercises conducted under the name “Peace Mission.” Under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) framework, China and Russia are the key players, though other member states also participate. The SCO officially works to fight the “three evils” – ostensibly terrorism, extremism and separatism although seen by many Western analysts as cover for suppressing civil protests and democratic movements. In addition to the Peace Missions, the SCO also has a permanent institution hosted in Tashkent, the unfortunately named Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), which facilitates intelligence sharing among SCO members. RATS also maintains a list of terrorists and organizations that it identifies as presenting a threat to the region’s security. In 2007, Russia requested that the Peace Missions be held under the joint framework of SCO and CSTO, but Beijing denied the request. Rather, the Secretariats of the SCO and CSTO signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which upgraded CSTO-SCO interactions and information exchanges, especially between their anti-terrorist structures.
Peace Missions are carried out with the official aim of strengthening antiterrorist capabilities among the region’s militaries. China and Russia usually contribute the most military personnel and equipment, with total military participants involved in Peace Missions ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 personnel. China has participated in every Peace Mission conducted to date. Scenario variations always revolve around a terrorist threat with differences ranging from the number of “insurgents” to the terrain conditions. U.S. analysts have commented that the Peace Missions, especially the earlier ones, featured tactics and heavy equipment ill-suited for a terrorist scenario, wherein insurgents would typically be organized in small groups with high mobility. SCO member Uzbekistan has in the past voiced its objections to the Peace Missions for this very reason.
Introducing the Peace Missions
The first Peace Mission was held in 2003 with two phases, one in Kazakhstan and the other in China. Peace Mission 2005 was held on Chinese territory near Vladivostok and Weifang from August 19 to 25. The PLA, PLAN, and PLAAF hosted Russian forces on Chinese territory. Other SCO members, Iran, India and Pakistan sent observers. The joint militaries enforced a mock offshore blockade and staged an amphibious landing and an airborne attack. The governments described the drill as an antiterrorist exercise with the scenario of a state under terrorist attack, even though the heavy equipment and tactics reflected a traditional security exercise. The Sino-Russian forces used conventional assault tactics from the 1970s and 1980s, involving 10,000 Chinese troops and 1,800 Russian troops.
Peace Mission 2007 was held in Xinjiang, China and Chelyabisnk, Russia. The scenario proposed a town captured by terrorists, requiring SCO joint forces with air support and artillery to free the town and arrest surviving terrorists. The scenario was crafted in light of the 2005 Andijan uprising in Uzbekistan and Chechen 1999 incursions into Dagestan. In contrast to Peace Mission 2005, this drill lacked heavy equipment, lending more credibility to its stated counterterrorist character. But the alleged terrorism seen in the past several years in Xinjiang usually involve small-scale warfare with long knives and other rudimentary weapons. It is unlikely that a whole town could be captured, let alone a scenario necessitating joint forces and air support.
Peace Mission 2009 ran from July 22 to 26 in Jilin, China. The five-day counterterrorist exercise consisted mainly of Chinese and Russian troops, though other SCO members sent small force contingents. The scenario involved terrorists trying to establish an independent regime at “Kunshan Township.” In doing so, they took hostages and went around the town looting and killing. More than 100 tanks and 60 aircraft were involved in the final phase of the exercise, attacking the terrorist headquarters and communication centers. An organized threat with headquarters and communication centers seems hard to imagine given the level of organization thus far evidenced by the acts of terror (as claimed by Chinese official media) in Xinjiang over the past several years.
Peace Mission 2010 was a joint antiterrorist simulation conducted in Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl region in September against a terrorist group in an urban setting. A total of 5,000 troops took part, dispatched from Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Assets involved included more than 1,600 armed vehicles, 100 artillery pieces, and 50 combat aircraft and helicopters. Peace Mission 2010 was unique in its focus on interoperability among participating units and more realistic conditions. The final phase occurred on September 24 when combined SCO member forces launched their assault on 1,500 “insurgents” with defense ministers of SCO member states observing. While Peace Mission 2010 was not the largest SCO antiterrorism exercise, it was the largest Sino-Russian joint exercise conducted outside either country up to that time.
The SCO staged Peace Mission 2012 from June 8-14, 2012 in northern Tajikistan. This mission continued the trend away from large-scale exercises toward a smaller model more suitable for antiterrorist activities. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan contributed military and security forces to the drill. There was an emphasis on heavy ground forces, such as army aviation, armor and artillery units. Uzbekistan again refused to join. Some speculate the refusal was not merely the usual objection to the exercise design, but also economic and political disputes with Tajikistan. Tashkent also refused to allow Kazakhstan to send troops through Uzbek territory to reach Tajikistan.
The official goal of Peace Mission 2012 was, according to the PLA Daily, the “preparation and implementation of joint anti-terror operations under mountainous terrain conditions.” Mountainous terrain is characteristic in both Xinjiang and Tibet. This was the smallest Peace Mission in the series, comprising only 2,000 personnel – with the PLA contributing 369 and Russia 350 personnel. The PLA ground forces traveled overland from Atushi through Kyrgyzstan while a PLA aviation group flew from Kashi in Xinjiang.
Russia hosted Peace Mission 2013 at the Chebarkul military training area in the Ural mountains. The joint military exercise lasted from July 27 to August 15 and only included Chinese and Russian forces. The non-attendance of other SCO members has not occurred since Peace Mission 2005. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan conducted their own joint military exercise in Kazakhstan earlier this summer, with China, Russia and Uzbekistan sending observers. Peace Mission 2013 occurred in the wake of the largest Sino-Russian joint military exercise in their bilateral history, which was primarily a navy exercise and took place outside the SCO framework. Peace Mission 2013 involved 1,500 personnel, 600 of whom were Chinese. The Chinese forces had to travel over 4,000 kilometers, with troops and armored vehicles transported by railway and aircraft making a number of refueling landings. Accompanying Chinese troops were tanks, light reconnaissance vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, self-propelled guns, JH-7A “Flying Leopard” fighter-bombers, gunships and Mi-171 transport helicopters. The official scenario, as expected, was an antiterrorist scenario.
Counterterrorism or Benefits for PLA Conventional War-Fighting?
The SCO antiterrorism exercises are invaluable avenues for the PLA to learn from Russian experience with counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Chechnya and with limited war in Georgia. But this seems to be a secondary purpose behind the Peace Missions. The Peace Missions are marked by artillery fire, large assaults, air power and heavy equipment. Using such tactics in the episodes of unrest seen in Xinjiang would result in high collateral damage and be completely disproportionate relative to the small numbers of Uyghur “terrorists” involved in past attacks. Rather, the Peace Missions offer the PLA opportunities to improve the proficiency of its forces in a variety of conventional tactical maneuvers, to conduct military diplomacy, and to publicly demonstrate its capabilities.
Over the course of the Peace Missions, the PLA has demonstrated improvements in logistics, command and control, and more sophisticated tactics. The live-fire drills of Peace Mission 2007 allowed Chinese armed forces to practice deploying and supporting a large force far from mainland China. The exercise also required the PLA to maintain logistics over long distances and cooperation across communication frequencies and signals for coordinated action. During Peace Mission 2010, the PLA dispatched a logistics group under the command of General Ma Xiaotian. The PLA transported 1,000 tons of materiel and six contingents of almost 1,000 troops. PLA logisticians had to find efficient methods to unload and reload train carriages when they passed from Chinese to Kazakh railways due to a difference in railway gauges.
The Peace Missions also exhibited many “firsts” for the Chinese military. It was during Peace Mission 2010 that the PLA air force flew its first cross-border mission. It was also the first time it simulated long-range air strikes. Four H-6 bombers and two J-10 fighter jets left air bases in China, flew more than 1,000 km, refueled mid-air, and rehearsed bombing ground targets in Kazakhstan. During Peace Mission 2012, PLA ground forces traveled overland from Atushi through Kyrgyzstan while a PLA aviation group flew from Kashi in Xinjiang.
The Peace Missions also allow for extended military diplomacy between the PLA and its Russian and Central Asian counterparts. Peace Mission 2007 was the first time for Chinese forces to engage in exercises in a foreign country. Seeking to demonstrate transparency, in the lead up to the exercise, the PRC Ministry of Defense’s Foreign Affairs Office invited 100 reporters from 48 foreign media organizations to visit Beijing Military Region. In June 2007, at a SCO defense ministers meeting, Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan made it a point to discuss bilateral relations, particularly with Uzbekistan. By January 2007, Colonel-General Moltenskoy, Deputy Commander of Russian Ground Forces, had already visited China twice for preparatory consultations. PLA soldiers also learned about relevant laws and Russian culture,reading books with titles such as A Guide for Troops to Join in Exercise in Russia and A Brief Introduction about Russia.
Finally, the Peace Missions permit the PLA to demonstrate its capabilities. During Peace Mission 2010, the PLA showed network-centric capabilities that the Russian Armed Forces lacked. The dedicated fighter aircraft for precision strikes flew from bases in relatively nearby Western China, but still chose to conduct mid-air refueling operations. In addition, all hardware used during the exercise was domestically produced. Unlike Russia and Kazakhstan, China chose to display forces equipped with new weapons systems.
Organizational Decisions Belie True Counterterrorist Capability
There are also practical considerations that undermine any trajectory toward true counterterrorist capabilities. First, the length and size of Peace Missions change dramatically between each exercise, which indicate their reactionary nature. The Peace Missions have steadily declined in size over time, which could indicate more realistic counterterrorist scenarios, but other factors seem more likely to be at play. From a practical point of view, cost constraints imposed by the 2008 global economic recession could account for the varied scale.
Peace Mission 2010 marked a resurgence in terms of size and length. It lasted fifteen days, a week longer than Peace Mission 2007. Reasons potentially include the recovery of global economic health, the reemergence of the Taliban as a real force, continued instability in Kyrgyzstan, and violent unrest in Chechnya and Xinjiang. A prominent Peace Mission also buoyed the confidence of Central Asian regimes in China and Russia’s commitment to regional security after the SCO’s non-intervention in Kyrgyzstan despite Bishkek’s appeal to suppress the Osh riots that summer.
Second, the Peace Missions do not institutionalize cooperation or tactical knowledge achieved through the exercises. The SCO lacks a collective command structure like NATO and is divided by internal competing interests. These two factors alone pose significant obstacles to the SCO members ever fighting as an integrated unit. China and Russia still share very little intelligence beyond SCO security exchanges. Most importantly, the participating “joint forces” concept is purely nominal. There is no consistency from Peace Mission to Peace Mission in the units or personnel involved, so knowledge is not institutionalized.
Chinese Counterterrorism Found Wanting?
Chinese state news media have continued to issue warnings about terrorism as the story runs its course. On November 1, China’s domestic security chief, Meng Jiangzhu, met with RATS chairman Zhang Xinfeng in Tashkent to report on the Tiananmen “terrorist” attack and to urge tighter cooperation between SCO members. Human rights experts are alarmed at the potential backlash in Xinjiang, with signs already of tightened security and reports of police randomly checking Uyghur IDs in the region. Will anything change because of the Tiananmen incident?
If the attack in Tiananmen was in fact an act of separatist violence connected to ETIM, then Beijing should redesign the Peace Missions to align more closely with a true counterterrorist scenario that reflects the facts on the ground. Assaults comprising thousands of troops and air power will not serve any true counterterrorist utility in Xinjiang. This is all, of course, assuming that China is in fact serious about counterterrorism and the leadership in Beijing actually believes transnational terrorist networks are fueling unrest in Xinjiang.
This article originally appeared on The Diplomat.