BEIJING — Russia, China and four former Soviet Central Asian republics have sent some 6,500 troops to participate in a multinational war game, in which they've deployed paratroops, 80 aircraft and hundreds of armored combat vehicles to suppress an Islamic uprising, similar to one that occurred in Uzbekistan in 2005.
The joint exercise, which started Thursday and runs through next Thursday, is the biggest organized yet by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a six-year-old security forum that languished in near-obscurity for some time but may be turning into a form of security alliance.
On Saturday, the joint exercises shift from near the city of Urumqi in the western deserts of China to the Ural Mountain city of Chelyabinsk in Russia.
Joining nearly 4,000 Chinese and Russian troops are paratroopers from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and military officers from Uzbekistan, which in 2005 evicted U.S. troops from an airbase that was a hub into neighboring Afghanistan. Last year, Russian and Chinese troops conducted air, land and sea maneuvers without the other nations.
This also marks the first time that airborne troops have deployed outside China, a sign of melting resistance in Beijing to using force in Central Asia to fight what it calls the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism.
Chinese and Russian spokesmen say the exercises aren't aimed at rivaling any other alliance or country. American observers were denied permission to attend, however.
"We did ask to be invited and we were told no," said Susan N. Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Outside observers say the exercise sends signals to Washington and Brussels, Belgium, the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the West's 58-year-old military alliance.
"The political message . . . to the Americans is that you can't push NATO into Central Asia. There is not a vacuum. We will resist," said M.K. Bhadrakumar, a strategic analyst and former diplomat based in New Delhi.
Some commentators have dubbed the organization the "NATO of the East," or "OPEC with nukes," but the Shanghai Cooperation Organization isn't a mutual security pact. Still, Russia, China and other countries have begun to treat it as a counterweight to NATO and the United States, and regional states such as Pakistan and Iran have been clamoring to join.
The war game scenario appears to be based on events in Uzbekistan's Andijan province in 2005, which led to the country's isolation from the West and the Shanghai group's demand that Western troops leave Afghanistan. Since then, NATO troops in Afghanistan have engaged in a worsening battle with resurgent militant Taliban forces.
While the military exercises unfold, leaders of the Shanghai nations will meet in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, for an annual summit. On the sidelines will be Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who also appeared last year seeking to join the organization — and observers from Turkmenistan, Mongolia, India and Pakistan.
Russian military Chief of Staff Gen. Yury Baluyevsky indicated this week that future joint exercises will be "on a wider scale."
Yet to be seen is whether the group agrees to cooperate with former Soviet republics in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes Armenia and Belarus as well as Russia and three Central Asian nations.
Earlier this month, the secretary-general of that grouping, Nikolai Bordyuzha, suggested that the two bodies collaborate to guarantee security across the region.
"There is going to be some sort of formal link-up between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the CSTO. The Russians have said it may happen in a few days or weeks," said Bhadrakumar, a former ambassador to Uzbekistan and diplomat in Moscow.