The relations between Pakistan and China are beyond the realm of normal diplomatic ties, and no terminology in the diplomatic parlance can really explain the nature of these bonds. China is not only a true friend but also a benefactor of Pakistan. The diplomatic relations established in 1951 have developed into an impregnable, vibrant and long-lasting partnership over the years. Their ties have always remained on the upward curve, belying the maxim that in international relations there are no permanent friends and enemies.
Commonality of interests invariably forms the basis of bonhomie between the states. The greater the commonality of interests, the greater the depth and strength of relations between the concerned countries. Pakistan and China, fortunately, have a slew of abiding common interests and factors that nourish the process of growth of ties between them. Their geographical proximity, complimentary economies that provide unlimited scope of economic cooperation to their mutual advantage, and common security concerns among other elements are the deciding factors in sustaining and reinforcing their resolve to stay on course. The role played by China in the economic development and making Pakistan’s defence impregnable is unparalleled in the history of inter-state relations. The Karakoram Highway, the heavy mechanical complex, the Heavy Rebuild Factory at Taxila, and development of nuclear plants at Chashma to boost energy production are some of the monumental projects in the domain of economic ties between the two countries. Nevertheless, the cooperation in the defence field has been the most rewarding.
Security threat emanating from India has been a major concern for both of them. China’s border dispute with India that erupted into a war between the two countries in 1962, and the Indo-Pak war of 1965 testified to the existence of this common threat, and the need for strong defence ties between the two. Since the early 1960s, China has been the largest defence supplier to Pakistan. It has extended invaluable cooperation that extends to all three services. It has not only provided weapons and equipment but has also assisted Pakistan in developing a strong capability in defence production.
The Aeronautical Complex, Heavy Industries, Taxila, and production lines in the Pakistan Ordnance Factories, maritime project for the navy and missile factories have been set up with Chinese help. China has been providing military hardware, technology and scientific expertise to Pakistan, and also helped the latter in the development of 750-km range solid-fuelled Shaheen-1 ballistic missile. Not only that, in 1992, it supplied Pakistan with 34 short-range ballistic M-11 missiles. Conventional weapons provided to Pakistan by China include: JF-17 aircraft, F-22 frigates with helicopters, K-8 jet trainers, T-85 tanks, F-7 aircraft, small arms and ammunition and above all, JF-17 aircraft.
It was in 1999 during the last Nawaz Sharif regime that Pakistan and China agreed for co-development and co-production of JF-17 aircraft at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Kamra, in collaboration with the Chinese Aviation Industry (CATIC) to replace the aging, medium-tech fleet of mirages, attaining self-sufficiency in the field of aircraft production dictated by the turn of events and the gravity of threats to Pakistan’s security. The agreement envisaged production of 50 aircraft for induction in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), the process that was completed in December 2013 when the 50th plane was rolled out. On this occasion an agreement for the production of another batch of 50 aircraft and their joint sale and marketing was signed between PAC and CATIC in view of the interest shown by some countries to buy it.
It would be pertinent to mention that Nawaz Sharif signed an agreement for the sale of eight combat JF-17 Thunder aircraft to Sri Lanka during his last visit to that country, with a delivery timeline of 2017. With the conclusion of this agreement, Pakistan has joined the prestigious club of countries that produce and export combat aircraft. Qatar and Malaysia have also evinced interest in buying the aircraft. The export of this aircraft would, undoubtedly, contribute to economic development of Pakistan as well. This cooperation in the domain of defence over the years has not only helped Pakistan in bolstering its defence capability and diluting a security threat to it by India, but has also helped China in countering Indian power in the region.
JF-17 aircraft is based on modern concepts of aerodynamics and the hybrid fly-by-wire control system that makes it highly agile in all regimes of operational fighting. It is an all-weather, multi-role and light control combat aircraft. It is equipped with fourth generation avionic systems that keep it beyond the visual range, short-range missiles and air-to-surface missiles. So far the PAF has equipped three squadrons with JF-17 aircraft. The induction of this aircraft in the PAF has enhanced the operational readiness manifold, making our skies safer than before. It could well prove to be the major stride towards self-reliance in meeting the needs of our air force as well as catalyst to the development of defence industry in Pakistan.
While the US imposed sanctions on Pakistan in 1965 and again in 1990, China has consistently supported Pakistan’s military modernisation effort. China built two nuclear reactors at Chashma. Currently, it is engaged in developing two more plants at the same site, a venture thought to be a response to the US-India civil nuclear deal. China dismissed NSG concerns about its failure to apply full scope safeguards of the organisation to its nuclear projects in Pakistan. China has also helped Pakistan to develop a deep-sea port at Gwadar whose control has been handed over to the former.
The new China is all for resolving disputes through dialogue, restraint from armed conflicts and partnership with regional countries for shared economic prosperity, which is amply demonstrated by establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the “One Belt, One Road” initiative that includes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In pursuance of this policy China has also tried to improve economic relations with India. Chinese President Xi Jinping also visited India in 2014 during which China pledged $20 billion Chinese investment in India in infrastructure and communication projects. The Indian prime minister also paid a return visit. The volume of trade between the two countries has also increased manifold. China supports and encourages resolution of disputes between Pakistan and India, including Kashmir through bilateral mechanism agreed between them.
Nevertheless despite these developments, China continues to maintain a robust defence relationship with Pakistan. With US efforts to prop up India as a regional superpower to contain the burgeoning Chinese influence in the region and beyond and its involvement in South China Sea, defence cooperation between Pakistan and China is poised to attain new heights. CPEC is yet another initiative that apart from ushering in an era of infinite regional economic prosperity, will impart a long-lasting dimension to cooperation on security and defence between the two countries. It is a win-win situation for both the countries. Those who are trying to make CPEC controversial for their narrow political gains need to look beyond their noses in the best national interest.