Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao
Pakistan is beefing up its arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles by embracing China as its new strategic arms partner and backing away from the U.S.
Pakistan earlier this month test-fired a nuclear-capable missile from an undisclosed location – the second in a month of try-outs for its short-range surface-to-surface Hataf 2 class rocket, co-developed with the Chinese. It was the latest in a series of arms collaborations between the two nations, which view their strategic partnership as a counterweight to a boldly confident India, which has American support.Until the mid-1960s, the United States was the principal supplier of weapons to Pakistan, the world’s eighth most-powerful nuclear nation.
But the U.S. began to back away from the relationship after years of difficult and sometimes unpredictable relations following the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. no longer fully supports the military ambitions of a Pakistan that is being destabilized by an insurgency it cannot control, rising radicalism and anti-Westernism, and a government considered by some too weak and corrupt.
That led Pakistan to replace the U.S. with China as a main source of defense material, at least in terms of arsenals, development and training.
“China is perceived as not coming with nearly as many strings attached as relations with the United States,” said Nate Hughes, director of military analysis at Stratfor, an intelligence website run by former CIA operatives.
This was starkly marked in November when on the same day the U.S. delivered some of the 18 F-16s it had pledged to Pakistan, Islamabad announced it had ordered an arsenal of SD10 mid-range homing missiles and radar systems to equip its JF-17 Thunder jet fighters from China.
More is on the way. China is scheduled to send Pakistan 250 JF-17s over the next five to ten years, a $1.3bn deal to buy J-10 fighters and a recent order for six submarines, all advanced under-sea vessels with an air independent propulsion system. A Pakistani government official was recently quoted as saying it was vital for the navy to acquire more submarines to offset "the pressure we will definitely come under" due to the rapid expansion of India's naval capability. "Our Chinese brothers have always come to our help and we are asking them for assistance once again," he said.
Earlier this month, China formally began the construction of two state-of-the-art fast attack missile crafts for the Pakistan Navy, in addition to eight F22P war frigates it ordered from Beijing back in 2005. Although the value of these contracts are kept a tight secret, some want to know how Pakistan can commit such enormous resources to defense spending.
“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,” said Maria Sultan, the director general for the South Asia Strategic Stability Institute in Islamabad. “You have to look at the long-term viability of these loans and look at what Pakistan can pay in 5, 10, 15 years. A lot of loans are forgiven with China not asking for Pakistan to return the capital after paying interest,” said Sultan.
But there may be issues in the Pakistani-China relationship.
“Pakistan and China have problems understanding each other’s mindset,” said Sultan. “Pakistan had difficulty in applying to the Chinese the hardcore approach to business that it had experienced the United States at the start. That’s not the approach with the Chinese, which is a personal approach built over time through friendships and gradual trust building. China delivers in 15 years what the U.S. can in four years.”
That locks Pakistan into a deeper relationship with China, arguably an additional downside when diversity of suppliers is a standard policy in many countries to ensure accessibility to weaponry.
“It creates a dependency, especially when you start to talk about sophisticated modern […] technology. You create dependency in terms of upgrades, in terms of spare parts and ammunition, contractor relationships and training,” said Hughes.