Russia, China Hold Joint War Games

The Associated Press
Friday, August 17, 2007; 6:57 AM

CHEBARKUL TESTING RANGE, Russia -- Fighter jets streaked through the air as Russian and Chinese forces held their first joint maneuvers on Russian land Friday in a demonstration of their growing military ties and a shared desire to counter U.S. global clout.

The war games in the southern Ural Mountains involved some 6,000 troops from Russia and China along with a handful of soldiers from four ex-Soviet Central Asian nations that are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional group dominated by Moscow and Beijing.

The drills coincided with a massive Russian air force exercise in which dozens of Russian strategic bombers ranged far over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.

President Vladimir Putin, Chinese leader Hu Jintao and other leaders of the SCO nations attended the exercise, which followed their summit Thursday in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

The summit concluded with a communique that sounded like a thinly veiled warning to the United States to stay away from the strategically placed, resource-rich region.

"Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of the existing regional associations," the statement said.

Friday's military exercise involved dozens of aircraft and hundreds of armored vehicles which countered a mock attack by terrorists and insurgents striving to take control of energy resources.

The United States, Russia and China are locked in an increasingly tense rivalry for control over Central Asia's vast hydrocarbon riches. Washington supports plans for pipelines that would carry the region's oil and gas to the West and bypass Russia, while Moscow has pushed strongly to control the export flows. China also has shown a growing appetite for energy to power its booming economy.

Ivan Safranchuk, an analyst at World Security Institute, said Friday's exercise underlined that "the SCO wants to show that Central Asia is its exclusive sphere of responsibility."

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov denied media allegations that the military exercise was aimed against the United States. "I don't see anything anti-American in the SCO exercise," he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Relations between Russia and the United States have worsened steadily amid U.S. criticism of Russia's democracy, Moscow's strong objections to U.S. missile defense plans and differences over global crises.

In a parallel exercise Friday, dozens of Russian strategic bombers flew to the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, air force spokesman Col. Alexander Drobyshevsky said. NATO jets were scrambled to accompany the Russian aircraft, he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Soviet bombers routinely flew such missions to areas from which nuclear-tipped cruise missiles could be launched at the United States. The maneuvers stopped the post-Soviet economic meltdown, but booming oil prices have allowed Russia to increase its military budget.

The SCO was created 11 years ago to address religious extremism and border security issues in Central Asia. In recent years, with Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia signing on as observers, the group has increasingly grown into a bloc aimed at defying U.S. interests in the region.

In 2005, the SCO called for a timetable to be set for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from two member countries, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan evicted U.S. forces later that year, but Kyrgyzstan still has a U.S. base, which supports operations in nearby Afghanistan. Russia also maintains a military base in Kyrgyzstan.

Moscow and Beijing have developed what they call a "strategic partnership" since the Soviet collapse, cemented by their perceptions that the United States dominates global affairs.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose country has SCO observer status, attended the summit for the second consecutive year. Losyukov said the group has no immediate plans to accept full members.

On Thursday, Ahmadinejad criticized U.S. missile defense plans as a threat to the entire region. "These intentions go beyond just one country. They are of concern for much of the continent, Asia and SCO members," he said.

Moscow objects vehemently to Washington's plans to deploy missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, saying the system would threaten Russia security. The United States says the missile defenses are necessary to avert the threat of possible missile attacks by Iran.

© 2007 The Associated Press