China and Pakistan are comrades in arms thanks to India and the US.
Pakistan formally recognised the Peoples Republic of China on 4 January 1950, and it was not guns and missiles that made it reach out. Pakistan was seeking a market for its jute and raw cotton, while looking to buy coal; in China, it found a willing trade partner. At the National Press Club in Washington DC on 4 May 1950, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan said that Pakistan had recognised China, “accepting an established fact and in order to ease [its] flow of trade”.
Things assumed the shape of military ties more than a decade later, when after its 1962 war with India, China began strategically capitalising on the India-Pakistan rivalry. The amicable border settlement between China and Pakistan in 1963 further facilitated the new turn of events.
However, China-Pakistan defence ties, which now account for one-third of Pakistan´s arms imports, began in right earnest only after the 1965 war, when the United States embargoed all military aid to Pakistan and even blocked supplies that were in the pipeline.
That bitter experience pushed Islamabad towards diversifying its sources of military hardware. As a first step, in 1966, China agreed to help Pakistan set up an ordnance factory in Ghazipur in the then East Pakistan. (The factory, commissioned in November 1970, was lost to Bangladesh after the 1971 war.)
The 1971 defeat taught Pakistan a few lessons. Defence ties with China grew deeper, given: a) Pakistan´s security perception in view of the changing regional balance of power; b) the sense of betrayal by the United States; and c) efforts towards greater self-reliance in military technology through indigenisation.
While the war established India´s conventional superiority over Pakistan, the 1974 Indian nuclear test in Pokhran added a new dimension to the region. Pakistan´s insecurity was heightened and it never bought India´s technical argument that the Pokhran test was a peaceful nuclear explosion, for the simple reason that the technology could be put to dual use. Besides, peaceful or not, the test demonstrated India´s nuclear capability.
Another factor for Pakistan´s vulnerability sprang from India´s signing a Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union in 1971. While the treaty yielded India huge military, technological and other dividends, for Pakistan it was cause for concern on more than one front; on its western border lay a hostile Afghanistan, which had traditionally maintained close ties with both India and the Soviet Union.
In the mid- to late-1970s, the issue of acquiring a French reprocessing plant, too, assumed great significance for Islamabad. It had begun work on acquiring nuclear technology after India showed its conventional and nuclear superiority. The plans were frustrated by the United States which forced the French to backtrack on the deal for the reprocessing plant.
Pakistan´s relations with the United States had reached their nadir, and the former fell in easily with China, both as strategic ally and client of defence hardware. It was only after Pakistan became the frontline state in the proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan that US-Pakistan ties improved in the early 1980s.
The Pakistani bridge
Importing arms from China had many advantages for Pakistan. Unlike the United States and other Western countries, China was not likely to embargo military supplies in the event of war with India. China´s system of government also made it easier for Pakistan to acquire military hardware, for here there were no restrictive factors such as domestic public opinion in the supplier countries and international law/treaties. (Pakistan suffered the United States embargo on military supplies in 1965 because the equipment it used in the war against India was supposedly given by the United States to fight communism.) Chinese military supplies were also much cheaper than Western imports. Moreover, China was willing to encourage Pakistan´s efforts at indigenisation rather than keep it dangling on a dependency relationship.
For China, too, this was emerging as a beneficial relationship, and not only from the strategic viewpoint allowing it to promote Pakistan as a counterweight to India. Pakistan, after all, provided China a lucrative market for its relatively low-quality weapons. At the same time, China was able to gain access to Western military technologies that Pakistan possessed or was likely to get, given the Pakistani military´s continuing relationship with the armed forces in the United States and other Western countries. Most importantly, Pakistan served as a bridge between an ostracised China and the Western world, especially the United States.
A significant element of ongoing Sino-Pak defence cooperation has been Chinas willingness to help Pakistan on the road to self-reliance by building infrastructure through turnkey projects (see box). This strategy, it seems, not only helps Pakistan but also provides China with long-term advantage. Take for example, the Sino-Pak collaboration in the development of the Super-7 fighter, which was originally a joint project between the China Aerotechnology Import Export Corporation (CATIC) and the US Grumman Corporation. Following the Tiananmen Square incident, Washington DC called off the deal. Since 1992, catic has been working with the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex as a junior partner in developing the Super-7.
Pakistan also stands to gain from the Chinese policy of inducting new weapon systems through higher imports. From the beginning of this decade, China has been modernising its defence forces by buying weapon systems from various sources, including Russia (like Su-27 fighters and T-80U tanks). Given the Chinese expertise in “reverse engineering” (copy producing on equipment till it suits the purpose), Islamabad could hope to get those weapon systems through China, incorporate them in its inventory and, over time, even start manufacturing them.
It is interesting to note that, before 1963, there was nothing to suggest that Pakistan took any interest in China as a potential ally against India. If anything, Pakistan seemed willing to consider allying with India on matters relating to China. When Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, in a letter to the Indian prime minister in September 1959, challenged the legitimacy of the entire MacMahon Line (the boundary line drawn in the first years of the century to delimit British India´s territory), President Ayub Khan offered Nehru a joint defence agreement between Pakistan and India, if India was willing to find a solution to Kashmir. The Indian prime minister rejected the offer with the famous words: “Joint defence against whom?” That, of course, he was soon to learn. During this period, China was not particularly enamoured of Pakistan´s membership of SEATO and CENTO, the US-led defence pacts meant to create a cordon sanitaire against Communism. There were also occasions when Pakistan criticised China, such as during Prime Minister H.S. Suhrawardy´s visit in 1957 to the United States.
More recently, in the early 1990s, the relationship saw a dip due to various factors, including the warming up of ties between China and India, despite the various existing Sino-Pak defence projects and despite New Delhi´s allegations that Beijing was cooperating with Islamabad in the nuclear arena and in missile technology.
These developments unfolded in the backdrop of the demise of the Soviet Union and China´s growing links with both Russia and the United States. There were also corresponding internal developments in China, including a turnaround in its old socio-economic patterns. Beijing continued its defence cooperation with Islamabad, but politically, its pro-Pakistan stand underwent a change. Most significant was Beijing´s reluctance to unconditionally support Islamabad on the Kashmir issue, and see it instead as a bilateral issue between New Delhi and Islamabad. Additionally, China thrice refrained from openly supporting Pakistan when Islamabad sought an international vote on India´s human rights violations.
Regionally, this change was underscored by the ongoing confidence building measures (cbms) between India and China, which began from 1993. In fact, the BJP government´s recent fulminations against China on the basis that the latter is a threat to India´s security are but a diversion in light of the CBMs in place between the two countries. China has never been less of a threat to India than today.
Beijing has also maintained a studied silence on India´s nuclear and missile programme and, in fact, assisted India by supplying heavy water at a crucial stage in January 1996. Meanwhile, there was friction between Pakistan and China on the question of Muslim uprisings in Xinjiang. Beijing´s perception has been that these uprisings were supported by Pakistan´s Jamaat-i-Islami and certain Afghan Islamicist groups.
However, the Xinjiang imbroglio too having been resolved, these wrinkles may now stand ironed out in the wake of India´s series of nuclear tests at Pokhran in early May 1998. The strategic scenario has seen a sudden change, and the plans and expectations of the regional countries have all changed. It ushers China and Pakistan into a new phase, and possibly a closer relationship than ever before.
Arm in arm
Al-Khalid MBT (Main Battle Tank)
Conceived in 1988, the agreement to jointly design, develop and manufacture Al-Khalid, also called MBT-2000, was signed in 1990. The plant to manufacture the tank was completed at the Heavy Re-build Factory in Taxila in 1992 as an extension of the HRF, which has been producing Chinese Type-69 MBTs since the 1980s.
The prototypes of the Al-Khalid, demonstrated in 1991, were said to have been manufactured in China even though the then Chief of Army Staff, General Mirza Aslam Beg, claimed that it was fully manufactured in Pakistan.
Production is expected to start by the turn of the century but reports suggest that it has run into difficulties because the design needs to factor in Pakistan´s difficult terrain and very high temperatures.
Karakorum-8 jet trainer/fighter
A joint venture between catic (China National Aerotechnology Import Export Corporation) and PAC (Pakistan Aeronautical Complex), the actual development of the aircraft, meant to replace the ageing T-37s, began with the collaboration of Pakistan´s amf (Aircraft Manufacturing Factory) and China´s NAMC (Nanchang Aircraft Manufacturing Company). The aircraft was designed and built at Nanchang by a team of PAC engineers and the first trial flight took place in late 1990. Production started in 1992, and Pakistan has agreed to take regular deliveries of the aircraft.
Super-7 (FC-1) fighter
(See main story.)
Missiles (air defence weapon systems; SSM M-ll/M-9)
Most of Pakistan´s air defence weapon systems, including radars, 37mm AD guns and RBS-70 Mk 1 and Mk 2 IFF (Identify Friend and Foe) surface to air missiles are Chinese. India has been alleging that China provided Pakistan with its medium-range M-9 and M-11 surface-to-surface missiles – the allegations have been rejected by Beijing.
A case in point is Pakistan´s IRBM, Hatf V (Ghauri). The immediate Indian reaction to its launch was that it was a Chinese missile. Later reports alleged that it was the North Korean Rodong (or Nodong) missile. However, these allegations were rejected by the more impartial Indian experts and commentators who pointed out Pakistan´s indigenous capacity to manufacture sophisticated guided missiles.
Heavy Mechanical Complex
The complex, completed with China´s help in 1979, houses the Heavy Forge Factory (HFF) and the Heavy Re-build Factory (HRF).
The HRF was built with China´s extensive collaboration. It began with the facility to overhaul Chinese Type-59 tanks. Later, the facility was extended to upgrade critical components of the T-59s. In the eighties, HRF also started licenced production of Chinese T-69 tanks.
The HRF has since expanded with Chinese collaboration. The Factory now manufactures T-69 II BMPs, T-85 II MBTs and M-113 APCs, although some of the components are still imported from China.
Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC)
PAC began with a Mirage rebuild factory with French collaboration. Later, China collaborated with PAC and the facility was extended to provide overhauling facilities for the F-6 Shenyang fighter and the RD-9B-8II turbojet engines. Later, the facility was further expanded to accommodate FT-5s, FT-6s and FT-7s. In the mid-eighties, it also started overhauling F-7Ps.
Another turnkey project within the overall framework of PAC was the LAMF (Light Aircraft Manufacturing Factory). Operational since 1981, it manufactures Swedish SAAB Scana light aircraft for Army Aviation. The aircraft is commonly known as Mushak and comprises the biggest component of Army Aviation´s Fixed Wing. This very facility later provided the jump off ground for the K-8 and the Super-7.