Malik Muhammad Ashraf

Following COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa’s visit to China, reports in the Chinese as well as Pakistani media indicate that there is an agreement between both countries to strengthen defence cooperation and their resolve to ensure the safety of CPEC – which is a vital component of China’s One Belt One Road initiative.

The COAS reportedly held productive meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who expressed a complete understanding of the challenges faced by Pakistan, its geopolitical relevance and contributions towards regional peace and stability. He assured full support to her in grappling with those challenges. Gen Bajwa also met Joint Staff Department Chief General Fang Fenghui, Chinese Executive Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, Central Military Commission Vice Chairman General Fang Changlong and Peoples Liberation Army Commander General Li Zuocheng and discussed issues pertaining to defence cooperation, regional security and the economy.

Global Times, a tabloid associated with the People’s Daily – a mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China – reported that China planned to enhance its defence cooperation with Pakistan. This includes China’s authorisation to allow Pakistan to produce ballistic and cruise missiles and the joint mass production of multi-role combat aircraft. Although the spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry evaded a direct answer to the media’s question on the subject. “Beijing stands for strategic balance in South Asia,” was all the ministry said on the matter.

However, military experts seem affirmative about a report insinuating that in view of the development of Agni missile by India – with a range of 5,000 kilometres which covers both China as well as Pakistan – strengthening defence cooperation between the two countries has become a foregone conclusion. The development is also understandable in view of the commitment of both countries towards safeguarding their mutual economic and commercial interests, more so CPEC.

The geopolitical and geo-strategic scenario in the region also demands further strengthening of defence cooperation between the two time-tested allies. Both sides also discussed the security of CPEC. Pakistan has already deployed more than 15,000 to protect CPEC and its navy has raised a special contingent to protect Gwadar Port. China was reportedly planning a five-fold increase in its marine force – from 20,000 to 100,000. Some of the Chinese marines will be stationed at Djibouti in Africa and the Pakistani port of Gwadar – the starting point of CPEC.

It is pertinent to note that only last week China built its low-to-medium altitude Air Defence System. This has been inducted into the air defence system of the Pakistan Army and is likely to enhance the Pakistan Army’s response capability to the current and emerging threats. The Chinese Mobile Air Defence System was capable of tracking and destroying a variety of aerial targets at longer ranges flying at low and medium altitudes.

Pakistan and China already have strong defence ties. The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in collaboration with the Chinese Aviation Industry conceived, co-developed and co-produced the JF-17 Thunder aircraft in 1999. For Pakistan, this was a big stride towards attaining self-sufficiency in the field of aircraft production and was dictated by the turn of the events and the gravity of threats to its territorial integrity. The PAC has already completed the production of 50 aircrafts under the Block-I project.

The JF-17 aircraft is based on modern concepts of aerodynamics and the hybrid fly-by-wire control system, which makes it highly agile in all regimes of the operational fighting. It is an all-weather, multi-role, light combat aircraft with the potential to form the backbone of any air force. It is equipped with fourth-generation avionic systems that keep it beyond the visual range, short-range missiles and air-to-surface missiles. So far, the PAF has equipped two squadrons with JF-17 aircrafts and the re-equipping of the third squadron will take place in the near future.

On the eve of the rolling-out ceremony of the 50th JF-17 under Block-I Project, the PAC and Catic signed the agreement for the production of another 50 aircrafts for Block-II batch. The JF-17s, which are being produced under Block-II, are an upgraded version of the aircraft produced under Block-I with improved versions of avionics sub-systems, air-to-air refuelling capabilities, additional weapons carriage facilities, optimised maintenance facilitation and additional operational capabilities. Considering the astronomical prices of the modern combat aircraft, JF-17 aircrafts offer a highly cost-effective solution with cutting-edge capabilities. A number of countries have evinced their interest in purchasing JF-17 aircrafts and, in view of this development, the PAC and Catic have also signed an agreement for the joint sale and marketing of the aircraft. It is, indeed, an auspicious development which is likely to accrue substantial economic benefits and further cement defence ties between Pakistan and China. The induction of JF-17 aircrafts in the PAF has made our air defence impregnable and enhanced its operational readiness manifold, making our skies safer than before.

The JF-17 project represents eternal and ever-growing ties between the two countries have withstood the vicissitudes of time and belie the maxim that there are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations. Our ties with China are beyond diplomatic cliches and their strength is demonstrated by actual steps that have been taken at the bilateral level to propel cooperation in the economic and defence ties between both countries.

China helped Pakistan during the 1965 war with India and has played a significant role in its economic progress. The construction of Karakoram Highway, Heavy Mechanical Complex in Taxila and Chashma-III and Chashma-IV nuclear plants reflect strong bilateral ties. In the backdrop of US-India deal for the transfer of civilian nuclear technology – which Pakistan regarded as a discriminatory act against itself – China exhibited the strength of relations between both countries by agreeing to help Pakistan in this area despite the reservations of the NSG and the US.

The new economic and strategic partnership forged with China – CPEC – represents a pragmatic and visionary approach that will put both countries on the road to eternal friendship and cooperation, dictated by unalterable geographical realities and economic and strategic compulsions. It also marks a departure from Pakistan’s perennial propensity to look up to the West for its security and economic needs – and rightly so.

Pakistan belongs to South Asia and its security and economic needs are inextricably linked to this region. The new narrative evolved by the incumbent government with regard to Pakistan’s relations with its neighbours and building strong linkages with various countries in the region – especially China – also fits well in the schemes of things at the global and regional level where China is poised to play a major role in determining the rules of the game on the chessboard of world politics. There are strong signs to suggest that China and Pakistan are poised to attain exponential enhancements in their economic and defence ties. This seems to be an indispensable imperative in dealing with the phenomenon of terrorism and issues related to regional security and shared economic prosperity.