In the scenario of COVID-19, two special aircraft flew into Pakistan from China, bringing a 10-member team of military doctors along with more emergency medical supplies and equipment as part of Beijing’s continued assistance in helping Islamabad fight the virus. This very aspect of ‘military involvement’ unlike in other cases of China’s aid to help the affected countries is noteworthy. It does significantly indicate that the “all-weather” relationship between China and Pakistan has evolved from being just pivoted in diplomatic ties to that of becoming more ‘military’ in intent. Most notably, amidst the stand-off in Eastern Ladakh, on 1 December 2020, Beijing and Islamabad signed a memorandum of understanding to deepen defence cooperation between the two allies. Highlighting the strategic intent, China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe stated:
“We [China and Pakistan] should push the mil-to-mil relationship to a higher level, so as to jointly cope with various risks and challenges, firmly safeguard the sovereignty and security interests of the two countries, and safeguard the regional peace and stability”.
These unfolding shifts in Beijing-Islamabad ties is indeed a sign of caution and of crucial concern for India. Here, the watchword is the ‘military’. The criticality calls for the pertinent query: Have the military ties between China and Pakistan transcended from co-operation to that of integration?
While there is no data that confirms the ‘integration’ aspect; however an assessment can be drawn based on the trends at play – gaining some insights over the ‘interoperability quotient’ in the military ties. This will help provide some clarity to the query ‘whether the ties have transcended from cooperation to integration’.
In China’s perception of Pakistan, the military quotient is one of the dominant aspects. To say so, as in 2018, during Pakistani General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s visit to China, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Zhang Youxia stated: “China-Pakistan military ties are an important backbone of relations between the two countries”. More specifically mentioned: “The two militaries should further pay close attention to practical cooperation in all areas, keep raising the ability to deal with various security risks and challenges, and join hands to protect the common interests of both countries”. The above statement by Chinese CMC Vice-Chairman provides a clarity on what China’s objectives relay vis-à-vis Pakistan. Three key perspectives can be drawn: first, calling the military ties as “backbone” only clarifies that China’s primary interests with Pakistan are military in objective. Second, the objectives as highlighted above brings into perspective the India factor. The commonality lies in the shared Chinese and Pakistani insecurity with India given the context of sovereignty and territorial dispute. As validated by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks over a telephonic exchange with his Pakistani counterpart Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in July 2020 suggesting: “both China and Pakistan must work together to meet the risks and challenges and safeguard the common interests of the two countries and regional peace and stability”.
In this regard, the objective of ‘practical cooperation’ automatically calls for ‘more than military cooperation’. The watchword here is ‘join hands to protect’. This very aspect calls for greater interoperability- that is, military integration over military cooperation. Furthermore, it also justifies the intent of collusion between China and Pakistan which qualifies all the three aforementioned objectives. This only makes military integration a rational choice for Sino-Pakistan Ties.
This can be understood from the trends that are at play. Wherein, the first area to note is China’s major military exercises with Pakistan, such as: Shaheen VII, Warrior VI, Aman 19 and Sea Guardians 2020. Here, four key observations can be made: First, military exercises have become a way of Chinese training to Pakistan’s Armed Forces, mainly by supporting major war games to upscale Pakistan’s combat abilities added with newly-supplied weapons (Chinese weapons). Second, complexity of such exercises have deepened in the recent past. There is increasing usage of Chinese platforms in the land, air and sea by Pakistan. Third, there is a new trend of air battle training- with dominant use of Chinese fighter jets along with early warning aircraft. And fourth, a new trend in the seas with usage of warlike air defence systems, anti-missile technology, anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and live-fire and joint marine training drills- to enhance Pakistan’s capacity to achieve sea denial in wartime. What does the military exercises signify?
The very purpose or intent behind China’s military exercise with Pakistan can be argued under two perspectives: First, to increase the interoperability between the two militaries, boosted with usage of common weapon systems. Second, to enhance the communication skills between the two parties that can help avoid any form of discrepancy in times of crisis. These two aspects further qualify the integration principle over cooperation between China and Pakistan.
The second aspect is that of China’s arms transfer to Pakistan. According to SIPRI 2020 data, China, accounts for 5.5 per cent of total arms exports- with conventional arms sales surging from US$645 million in 2008 to US$1.04 billion in 2018. Of which, the major recipient of China’s arms is Pakistan. To note, China has replaced the U.S.-Pakistan defence trade in its favour by increasing its share in Pakistani defence arsenal to around 60 per cent in recent years. Majority of the arms encompass that of air force, armoured vehicles and artillery. And the major weapons supplied include- JF17 Thunder Fighter Jets, Type054A/Jiangkai, Frigates, wing Loong1 armed drones, Type041/Yuan Submarines and others. What is noteworthy is that China is also transforming Pakistan into an arms exporter- as Islamabad exported the jointly manufactured JF-17 “Thunder” fighter jets to Myanmar and Nigeria.
Third aspect is that of the China hand in development of Pakistan’s nuclear capability as well as in supporting Pakistan’s armoured capability. Pakistan’s main battle tanks (MBT) are based on Chinese designs, such as: Type-59/Al-Zarrar tank, based on the Chinese Type 59 MBT; Type-69 II MBTs; Type-85 IIAPs; and al-Khalid tanks- al-Khalid MBTs based on the Chinese Type 90-IIM tank. The other tanks on the list include- Chinese-made VT-4 tanks (also called 3000-MBT) and a more advanced version of the al-Khalid III MBT. As found, China is upgrading most of Pakistan’s tanks and enhancing their capability to attack any time of day. For instance, a deal has been inked to overhaul Pakistan’s MBT- the Type 85-IIAP. In September 2020, Pakistan unveiled the VT-4 tank during an exercise.
Fourth, the big deals in the pipeline such as Pakistan’s army had inked a deal with China’s Northern Industries Corporation (NORINCO) to procure artillery guns. China has signed an export deal worth over US$4 billion to supply eight new submarines to Pakistan. This will augment Pakistan’s fleet of French origin boats and marks the single biggest export deal for China. Besides, Pakistan has also ordered four modified Type 054A/P frigates- which currently serves as the mainstay frigate of the Chinese Navy. This will provide Pakistan with a sea denial capability as the frigate is designed as a multi-mission platform capable of anti-ship warfare, anti-submarine warfare and anti-air warfare- offering both defensive and offensive capabilities.
In addition, China and Pakistan are also jointly working on the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles including the Caihong-5 and Wing Loong-I. This will enhance inter-operability with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) offered in new domains of- cyber, space, and electronic warfare. This aspect of Chinese arms transfer to Pakistan and the way it is facilitated significantly qualify the logic of China’s military integration with Pakistan.
And finally, what further adds to the ‘integration’ aspect are newfound anticipations over Pakistan military’s use of Chinese navigation system Beidou for both military and civil purpose. There are also reports that China and Pakistan are planning to set up a Joint Military Commission (JMC)– likely to be a mechanism for operational coordination between the Pakistan Army and the Chinese PLA.
In assessing the trends, one can rightly argue that interoperability has become the key aspect of every military interaction between China and Pakistan. Notwithstanding that, Pakistan has also become the test lab for Chinese weapon systems. In every military aspect of the Sino-Pakistan ties, both in intent and action, India is the common target. Having a common interest, further strengthens the commitment towards seeking integration over cooperation- opting for collusiveness against India becomes rational choice. This then raises the possibility of what is largely perceived as a “two-front war” against India. There remains little doubt to suggest that China-Pakistan military ties are transcending from cooperation to that of integration. Thus, it only gives India greater reasons to tie up its loose ends.
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 NORINCO with sales of $17.2 billion is the world’s largest producer of land systems and would rank eighth in the world’s Top 100 in world’s defence companies. This very aspect brings into perspective of China’s Military Industrial Complex- that is increasingly growing at a fast pace.
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