Pakistan and China: Friends in Arms

Pakistan, of late, has taken it relations with China to a new high with increasing the number of defence buyouts from the latter. Islamabad seems to have realised that following the killing of Osama bin Laden by US marines on its soil, Washington would now substantially decrease defence aid to Pakistan. So who would be the next best option? Beijing, undeniably, and for the simple reason that both Pakistan and China share a common enemy, India.

Till the mid-1960s, the US was the major supplier of arms to Pakistan, the eighth most-powerful nuclear state in the world. Washington, however, started to sing the divorce-lines when its honeymoon with Islamabad hit the rough patch following the 9/11 attacks. US, today, no longer exhaustively support military ambitions of a country that is increasingly being shaken by an insurgency it can’t control, a rising anti-Western mindset and radicalism, and a government that is considered across the world as corrupt and overtly weak.

This has led Islamabad to replace Washington with Beijing as the principal source of defence equipment, at least as regards arsenal, training and development.

Earlier this month, Pakistan, from an undisclosed location, test-fired a nuclear-compatible missile. This was the second such tryout for the surface-to-surface short-range Hataf 2 class rocket, developed with Chinese knowhow. It was the latest instance of a series of arms cooperation between Islamabad and Beijing, who view their strategic and defence partnership to counterweight a bold and confident India, which has US support.

More are on the cards. Beijing is scheduled to send Islamabad 250 JF-17s in the next five years. Besides, a $1.3 billion deal for buying J-10 fighters as well as a recent contract of six submarines, all having air-independent propulsion systems, have been effected. China has also formally begun the manufacture of two state-of-the-art attack missile crafts for Pakistan navy. This is in addition to the eight F22P war frigates order from Beijing in 2005. A senior government official at Islamabad was recently quoted as saying that the purchases were necessitated to offset “the pressure we will definitely come under” because of India’s rapid expansion of naval capability.

Though the combined expenditure towards all these arsenal is a closely guarded secret, questions have begun to arise, in Islamabad as well, about how the Pak government can commit to such huge purchases. Maria Sultana, director general, South Asia Strategic Stability Institute, Islamabad, said, “While President Asif Zardari travels to China every six months and signs one memorandum of understanding after another, he has committed way too much than he can deliver. There are too many kickbacks for contracts.”

The Chinese, however, often waive the principal, after Pakistan has paid off the interest. This has made Beijing a more feasible partner than Washington and has locked Pakistan in a deeper relation with China.

Whether Islamabad is able to pay off its defence debts is no concern for New Delhi. What is a concern is that the purchases are solely meant for use against India. And on that regard, the mandarins at South Block have some real brainstorming to execute.

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