China, between 2017 and 2021, has cemented its place as Pakistan’s largest supplier of major arms, including fighter aircraft, warships, submarines and missiles, data compiled by an independent institute focusing on arms transfers and conflict said.
Between 2017 and 2021, Beijing met 72% of Islamabad’s demand for major arms, data from Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published in March showed.
Conversely, 47% of all the major arms exported by China went to Pakistan during that period, SIPRI said.
Though several of the deals are labelled “co-production” or “joint programme” – implying significant Pakistani research and design (R&D) input – in reality, in most cases, the R&D is mainly or all Chinese even for specific Pakistani requirements, according to SIPRI’s analysis.
Top arms deals between the two countries include the continued supply (as licensed production in Pakistan) of the JF-17 combat aircraft – with the delivery of the “much improved” Block-3 version to start this year – SIPRI’s report Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2021, said.
“Delivery of the first batch of J-10 combat aircraft started earlier this year, which was the first export of this aircraft by China. It is more advanced than the JF-17,” Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher with SIPRI’s arms transfers programme, said.
China isn’t supplying only combat aircraft, said Wezeman.
“With the combat aircraft come various types of guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles, as well as advanced long-range air-to-air missiles; the latter one reason for India’s acquisition of the Rafale from France which comes with the Meteor long-range air-to-air missile – (triggering) a sort of air-to-air arms race,” Wezeman said.
China is also supplying (again as licensed production in Pakistan) the Type-90-2M tank, known in Pakistan as Al-Khalid and Al-Khalid-I.
“At the same time Pakistan also imports the more advanced VT-4 tank directly from China,” said Wezeman.
Warships are high on the agenda for both China and Pakistan as Beijing tries to counter India’s influence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea by arming the Pakistani navy.
“The supply of 4 Type-054A/P frigates: The first delivered in 2021 and the other 3 planned in 2022,” Wezeman said.
Cooperation between the Chinese and Pakistani navies is a critical component in their defence ties.
The ongoing programme for eight Type-041 submarines, planned for delivery in 2022-2028, includes four to be produced under license in Pakistan.
“These are large advanced conventional submarines and there have been reports/rumours they may also be fitted by Pakistan as carriers of nuclear weapons.”
Many other programmes for artillery, drones and air-defence systems have been ongoing or started in the last few years, the SIPRI analysis said.
Pakistan also has a wish list it expects China to look into: the 5th generation combat aircraft, long-range air-defence missile systems and major warships, like the “Type-054s or something else from the quite large Chinese catalogue of warships”.
The trend in the last two decades of Pakistan’s increasing reliance on China for major weapons is now fully established.
“Our assessment that this picture is not going to change, mainly since the US has ‘given up’ on Pakistan and turned more to India as it primary partner in region, aside from the end of US operations in Afghanistan in 2021 which ended the need to keep Pakistan as some kind of ally,” Wezeman said.
After China, Pakistan buys most of its major arms from Sweden and Russia while for Beijing, after Islamabad, the next top buyers of its arms are Bangladesh and Thailand.
A Chinese expert said it is Pakistan’s right to buy weapons from any country.
“As a sovereign country, Pakistan can buy from any other country including China or the US. Similarly, India can buy weapons from anyone, say, Russia, or the US, or France,” Long Xingchun, head of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs said.
Long added that India should not worry as it is a powerful and confident country. “I don’t think China selling weapons to Pakistan is a threat to India.”
“Does China complain when India buys weapons from Russia? Neither should India,” Long said.
On March 31, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China’s defence ministry said military-to-military relations, serving as the mainstay of the China-Pakistan friendship, have played an important role in the development of bilateral relations for a long time. It’s evident why.