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As China-Pakistan ties become wider, India must prepare for implications

Pakistan’s growing alliance with China has been a major factor that has alleviated international pressure on it, altering its strategic calculus. Beijing’s all-out support to Pakistan provided room to shrink Islamabad’s reliance on the West

Written by Shalini Chawla |
Updated: September 30, 2020 8:45:17 am
China's President Xi Jinping meets with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan in Beijing (Reuters/File)

With the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting in sight, Pakistan is gearing up to gather support from China to avoid the blacklisting. Reports suggest that Islamabad is likely to persuade the US to support it as it feels it can leverage its much-lauded role as a successful negotiator in the US-Taliban agreement signed on February 29. While Pakistan will have support from Turkey and Malaysia, Beijing is expected to push hard in Pakistan’s favour at the meeting. Pakistan has been on the FATF grey list since June 2018 and even though Islamabad is getting its progress report ready, there is little evidence to suggest that its faith in the use of terrorism as a state policy against India will change.

Pakistan’s growing alliance with China has been a major factor that has alleviated international pressure on it, altering its strategic calculus. Beijing’s all-out support to Pakistan provided room to shrink Islamabad’s reliance on the West (especially the US). Importantly, Pakistan’s military build-up has continued with Chinese defence imports despite its economic slowdown and mounting debt.

China’s assistance to Pakistan over the last six decades has expanded from a purely military relationship to economic and diplomatic levels. Beijing’s weapon supply not only added to Pakistan’s defence capability but also strengthened its will to carry out a proxy war through terrorism in India, without the fear of being defeated in retaliatory Indian aggression.

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China’s lavish military assistance to Pakistan has been on four critical fronts: Export of Chinese conventional military equipment; support in Pakistan’s nuclear build-up; assistance to Pakistan’s indigenous defence industry and intelligence sharing. The supply of Chinese conventional weapons started in the 1960s and 1970s with F-7s and MiG-19 fighters. In the 1980s, the Pakistan Army inventory had significant Chinese equipment including the T-59 MBTs, T-60 and T-63 Light Tanks, and Type 531 APCs. By the early 1980s, China had provided Pakistan about 65 per cent of its aircraft and more than 70 per cent of its tanks.

Pakistan started its naval acquisitions from China in the 1980s with a long-term objective of striking a deal for technology transfer for indigenous production in the future. In the last two decades, the focus of Pakistan’s defence procurement has been on the build-up of its air force and the maritime strike capabilities of its navy. In these, technology transfer from China has been a key feature. The Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (AMF), under the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) at Kamra, started production of the Karakoram-8 jet trainer in collaboration with the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC). JF-17 is co-developed by Pakistan and China and reports suggest the PAC has been producing 58 per cent of the JF-17’s airframe, and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation 42 per cent of it. In 2006, the Pakistan Navy ordered four F-22P-type frigates from China and it was agreed that the fourth F-22P will be manufactured in Pakistan at a Karachi shipyard. PNS ASLAT is the first indigenously built frigate of the navy and the production was done in collaboration with the China Shipbuilding and Trading Company.

On the nuclear front, Pakistan received help with the reactor, weapon design as well as nuclear material (in the 1970s and 1980s). China continued missile technology assistance to Pakistan and the technology of the Chinese M-11 was used by Pakistan to develop missiles, including Hatf-3/Hatf-4 (based on M-11) and Hatf-6 (based on Chinese M-18).

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The intelligence-sharing cooperation between the two countries has deepened and reports suggest posting of Pakistan’s ISI officers (from this March) to China’s Central Military Commission’s Joint Staff Department. The alliance expanded into an economic partnership with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which Pakistan sees as a game-changer. Beijing’s diplomatic support to Pakistan has grown significantly after the revocation of Article 370 and China has repeatedly raised the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council.

It looks like China wants its alliance with Pakistan to serve as an exemplar to smaller nations in South Asia and the Middle East to fulfil its boundless strategic and economic ambition. The Sino-Pak nexus is expected to grow further in the coming years and India needs to be strategically prepared to deal with the implications of the alliance.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2020 under the title ‘A deepening nexus’. The writer is distinguished fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies

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