Russia's unprecedented military exercises with China went so well last month that they may be expanded to include several Central and South Asian countries, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said.
Mr. Ivanov, in a Russian television interview Tuesday, said Moscow was considering staging larger joint exercises involving the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a four-year-old regional grouping dominated by Moscow and Beijing.
"I think a repeat exercise will be held sooner or later," Mr. Ivanov said.
"And secondly, I do not rule out that the armed forces not only of China and Russia but of other members of the SCO will take part, including perhaps the countries which are observers with SCO."
SCO members are China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Iran were given observer status just this year in the grouping, which has become a prime vehicle for Russia and China to challenge U.S. influence in the region.
The eight-day Russian-Chinese exercises, dubbed "Peace Mission 2005," involved about 10,000 troops on Russia's Pacific coast and China's Shandong peninsula.
They were the first joint exercises of their kind for the one-time Cold War rivals, and many saw them as a challenge to U.S. military dominance in Asia.
The United States was not among the countries invited to observe the exercises, but U.S. intelligence agencies closely monitored the proceedings, The Washington Times reported last month.
Mr. Ivanov said in the interview that China was Moscow's "major strategic partner" and denied the exercises were aimed at either the United States or Taiwan.
"I see nothing here that third countries should be afraid of," he insisted.
SCO was formed in 2001 out of a looser grouping created in 1996 known as the Shanghai Five. The earlier group focused at first on resolving border disputes after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. After September 11, it became a component of the war on terror.
In 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was created with the addition of Uzbekistan.
SCO has signaled its intent to oppose a long-term U.S. military presence in Central Asia.
Both Moscow and Beijing have begun to devote much more energy to the bloc after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the establishment of American military bases in the region.
The SCO startled the Bush administration earlier this year when the member nations approved a resolution demanding the United States set a firm date for abandoning its bases in the region.
Uzbekistan, under fire from Washington over its human rights record, demanded U.S. forces leave a key base there that had been supporting the Afghan mission.
An unnamed top Russian military official told the Russian Interfax news service that "in principle, the SCO is not a military organization."
"But as time goes by, it is increasingly adopting new military elements," he added.
Russia and India hold their first joint army drill next month, staging a mock raid on a "terrorist base" in the northwestern Indian province of Rajasthan, on the border with Pakistan.