January 2022

Secret hand behind the arms

Yvonne Gill assesses the growing belligerence defining the alliance between Islamabad and Beijing, which is jeopardising the region’s fragile peace

As India faces Chinese incursion attempts along the vast expanse of its borders, Pakistani armed forces are being bolstered by an infusion of some of the best military hardware that China produces. The strategy is to threaten India with the possibility of a two-front assault: one from the west by Pakistan, another from the east by China. Already the Chinese have amassed tens of thousands of their troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), following the Galwan clashes between the Indian army and the People’s Liberation Army in Ladakh in northern India last year.

Not only is China hell-bent on breaching the sprawling 3,488-km LAC with India – a de facto border not demarcated on mutually agreed maps like the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC) in the west – Beijing’s long-term game plan is to alter the very geopolitical balance of the region. Pakistan is perhaps the only country in South Asia that fits China’s security calculus, because both nations have gone to war with India, and ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ is the motivating force that cements their so-called all-weather friendship. Yet China was previously reluctant to intervene during major hostilities between India and Pakistan that broke out in 1965, 1972 and 1999.

President Xi Jinping’s accession marked the beginning of a bellicose China and its growing great power ambitions. India is a major power with which the Chinese have to contend in South Asia, and on the larger plank of the Indo-Pacific. Thus an undeclared Sino-Pak axis is taking shape. Over the last year alone, unprecedented Chinese arms deliveries have been made to Pakistan, upgrading the fighting capability of all three wings of its armed forces.

India is a major power with which the Chinese have to contend in South Asia

Over the years, Pakistan has been unable to service, refurbish and replenish its weapons systems due to restrictions imposed by western countries, with whom it has been in alliance for several decades since its formation. Consequently, a large component of its Air Force comprises aircraft, helicopters and transport planes previously supplied by US, French, Swedish and Italian manufacturers. This is also true of small arms and artillery used by the Pakistani army, and its naval assets.

China, too, has been an important supplier of arms and military technology to Pakistan. But the relationship has deepened in recent times, with China making strategic investments in the Gwadar deep seaport and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), besides providing technological know-how for defence production and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

STEALTHY: On 8 November 2021, the Pakistan Navy commissioned PNS Tughril, the first and largest of four Type 054A/P frigates being acquired from China

A paradigm shift is that Pakistan is now being granted access to some top-of-the-line Chinese military equipment, so it will be able to throw down the gauntlet to a much more powerful India, their common foe. Beijing’s re-arming of Pakistan is systematic and well planned: the Chinese want to enhance the country’s nuclear-weapons capability, give teeth to its Air Force, set up an effective air defence system against air and missile attacks, equip its armoured corps with modern tank, and provide an edge to its navy by inducting modern warships.

Circumventing the Nuclear Supplier Group’s norms, China has for a long time been secretly involved in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, passing on missile and uranium enrichment technology and warhead designs. Every time Islamabad unveils a new longer-range missile, there is bound to be a hidden Chinese hand behind it, experts maintain. The coordination vis-à-vis the control and command of nuclear weapons is believed to be much greater now that both militaries are reported to be working on a joint strategy against India.

Pakistan is now being granted access to some top-of-the-line Chinese military equipment

A major collaboration between Pakistan and China has been the joint production of the JF-17 Thunder, a multi-role combat aircraft that can be used for intercepting enemy aircraft, ground attack, and anti-ship and aerial reconnaissance purposes. The JF-17 is replacing the US-made F-16s and the ageing French Mirages which were the mainstay of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). It will not be long before the advanced Block III version of the JF-17 goes into production in Pakistan. The PAF already operates a JF-17B twin-seater variant for training and enhanced operational requirement.

While India is preparing to induct the Russian S-400 air defence missile system, Pakistan has already inducted an undisclosed number of HQ-9/P HIMADS (High to Medium Air Defence System) in October last year. This HQ-9 variant can intercept aircraft, cruise missiles and other targets from as far away as 100 km with great precision. Although the S-400 has a much greater range and can handle 36 targets simultaneously, with the Chinese on the other side of the border equipped with a higher version of the HQ-9s, comparable to Russia’s S-300 and America’s MIM-104 Patriot missile system, India will need to significantly increase the number of fifth generation fighter jets like Rafale in its fleet to ensure a credible level of deterrence.

Last July saw the formal induction of the first batch of Chinese VT-4 battle tanks into the Pakistan Army

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and drones is an area of keen interest to the Pakistan army, notorious for its proxy war in Indian Jammu & Kashmir. China supplied its CH-4 drones to Pakistan early last year. These compact remote-controlled flying machines, capable of 14 hours’ continuous flight, can undertake reconnaissance missions deep into enemy territory. A version of the drone can carry 345 kg of explosive payload for tactical strikes. 

Another acquisition which gives tactical advantage to Pakistan’s ground forces was the formal induction of the first batch of Chinese VT-4 battle tanks into the Pakistan Army in July last year. The VT-4 has advanced armour protection, manoeuvrability and fire power, making it a state-of-the-art tank, a statement by the Pakistan’s Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) said, adding that the country would be acquiring 360 VT-4 tanks.

And on 8 November 2021, the Pakistan Navy commissioned its largest and most advanced stealth warship, PNS Tughril, a Type 054A/P frigate, built at the Hudong Zhonghua Shipyard in China. This is first of the four Type 054A/P frigates being acquired from China.

Stealthy due to a sloped hull design, radar-absorbent materials lining its surface and a clean profile, the warship is equipped with modern sensors and armaments, including the SR2410C long-range and Type 517/SUR17B air-surveillance radars. The frigate is armed with HQ-16 medium-range air-defence missiles. What makes the warship lethal include its eight C-803 anti-ship/land-attack cruise missiles, one PJ26 76 mm dual-purpose naval gun, two Type 730 7-barrel 30 mm CIWS guns or Type 1130, six 324mm Yu-7 ASW torpedo launchers, two Type 87 240mm anti-submarine rocket launchers with a battery of 36 rockets, and two Type 726-4 18-tube decoy rocket launchers, as reported by the media. The ship can carry a crew of 165 people and can sail at a top speed of 27 knots, with a cruising range of 8,025 nautical miles (14,862 km), making it an aggressive naval platform.

China is providing critical technological support for the development of compact nuclear reactors for its N­submarine programme

HQ­9 can intercept aircraft, cruise missiles and other targets from as far away as 100 km

The Pakistan navy had in 2017 test-launched a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, a variant of its Babur cruise missile. Though having a short range and much inferior to India’s BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, the nuclear-capable Pakistani missile poses a potential threat to India’s coastal cities and assets. In collaboration with the Chinese, Pakistan is building a Hangor-class submarine with air-independent propulsion system that enables it to stay submerged for longer periods to evade detection. A nuclear-powered submarine will also enter service by 2028, according to the country’s national submarine programme. An invisible Chinese hand must be providing critical technological support to the project, including the development of a compact nuclear reactor needed to power the submarine.

It is noteworthy that the name of the first Type 054A/P frigate acquired by Pakistan, ‘Tughril’, is in honour of Abu Talib Muhammad Tughril, the first Sultan of the Seljuk Empire, which conquered and ruled modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey between the 11th and 14th centuries. This speaks volumes about the Pakistani mindset and its glorification of medieval Turkic Muslim sultans, known for their brutal military campaigns.

But the Chinese have a far bigger agenda. Pakistan is a willing pawn in the Dragon’s concerted bid to project power in South Asia and beyond, into the Middle East and Central Asia.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London