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Sino – Pakistan Defence and Strategic Cooperation

Over 70 years, Pakistan and China have maintained an ‘all-weather friendship’ based on goodwill, mutual understanding, trustworthiness, and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Defying all projections, the multi-faceted relationship has evolved into a deeper strategic partnership ushering Pakistan’s advancement in nuclear energy, aeronautics, defense, and maritime domains.

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The year 2021 marks 70 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Pakistan and China. It is being justifiably commemorated as a period of fruitful friendship and cooperation unprecedented in the history of interstate relations.

This relationship has defied the time-tested dictum by British statesman Lord Palmerston that ‘countries have no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests,’ which essentially implies that interstate relations are based on selfish self-interests of the parties involved.

However, the Pakistan-China relationship is unique due to its consistency, sincerity, mutual trust, and ability to remain unaffected by the winds of change in the international environment. Nor has it been affected by the changes in leadership and internal political upheavals in either country.

Firmly ensconced in the five principles of mutual co-existence (the ‘Panchsheela’), the relationship has grown from strength to strength over the past seven decades undaunted by the formidable mountain barriers and the forbidding terrain separating the two countries epitomized by the Karakoram Highway – the road linking the two countries.

The ancient Silk Route had historically and culturally linked the two people, and presently it is being re-incarnated in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

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Budding relationship

Pakistan was the first Muslim country and one of the first three states outside the Communist block to recognize the Peoples’ Republic of China in January 1950.

The two countries reached an agreement to establish full diplomatic relations in May 1951, and respective ambassadors were exchanged in the latter half of the year. The early years of the Pakistan-China relationship were mired in mutual suspicions, especially after Pakistan joined the SEATO, ostensibly an anti-China treaty in 1954.

However, when the two Premiers Zhou En Lai and Muhammad Ali Bogra, met at the occasion of the Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, Bogra was able to assure Zhou En Lai that Pakistan didn’t see China as a threat and would not become a part of any military adventure against China just as it had stayed out of the Korean War.

This was also a time of bonhomie between India and China, characterized by the slogan of ‘Hindi-Cheeni Bhai Bhai’ (Indians and Chinese are brothers). It was not long before the Sino-Indian romance was over on the issue of disputed border areas with competing claims that led to a border war between them in October 1962.

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This was followed by an amicable settlement, delimitation, and delineation of borders between Pakistan and China in 1963. During the 1965 War between India and Pakistan, the Chinese unequivocally condemned Indian aggression.

They provided political, moral, and material support to Pakistan by moving its troops close to the Indian border, thereby exerting indirect pressure on India.

Another unique feature of the Pak-China relationship is the frequent high-level exchanges and consultations. Zhou En Lai visited Pakistan five times. It has become a norm in Pakistan that every incoming head of government has Beijing as his /her first foreign destination and usually visits China more than once during their government’s tenure.

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Defense cooperation

During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, the United States imposed an embargo on military supplies to both countries, which hit Pakistan hard since India’s primary source of military equipment was the Soviet Union.

Even essential spare parts already in the pipeline were held back. At this critical juncture, Pakistan approached China which readily helped Pakistan by providing much-needed military equipment, including Mig-19 aircraft, tanks, artillery guns, and military transport.

Although at the time, the Chinese defense industry was not technologically very advanced and was mainly producing Soviet origin weapons and equipment under license, the Chinese military hardware adequately met Pakistan’s critical needs.

It thus started the Sino-Pakistan defense relationship, which has come to signify the most dependable source of military equipment for Pakistan. The two militaries also conduct personnel training, joint exercises between land, sea, and air forces, and occasionally participate in celebratory military parades on each other’s national days.

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A unique aspect of this defense relationship is that over the years, it has evolved from a buyer-seller relationship into a collaborative venture with the Chinese generously transferring technology and production facilities and providing technical assistance to help Pakistan achieve a high degree of self-sufficiency in meeting its defense needs.

Some of the most significant manifestations of this collaboration are the Heavy Mechanical Complex (HMC), Heavy Electrical Complex, Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT), and the Aeronautical Complex at Kamra.

It may not be possible to detail the vital contributions made by the aforementioned industrial facilities in augmenting Pakistan’s defense capabilities within the scope of a short article. However, it would be pertinent to highlight some of the most prominent products of these industries.

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The Tank Rebuild Factory

Factory at HIT helped in up-grading and up-gunning the Al-Zarrar tanks, extending their useful operational life and enhancing their fighting capabilities. The HIT has also produced Pakistan’s frontline main battle tank (MBT) Al-Khalid, which is now the mainstay of Pakistan’s armored fighting vehicles.

The Aeronautical Complex at Kamra

Initially the complex had two main components, i.e., the Mirage Rebuild Factory meant to overhaul and repair the French Mirage 3 and 5 aircraft and the F6 Rebuild Factory, which was designed to overhaul and repair the Chinese supplied Mig-19 aircraft.

It has since been vastly expanded and has been manufacturing joint Chinese-Pakistani jet trainer aircraft Karakorum-8 (K-8). However, the landmark achievement has been the collaborative designing, development, and production of the multi-role fighter jet JF-17 Thunder. Kamra Aeronautical Complex formally launched the production of this aircraft in April 2005, and it has since produced its Block-1 and Block-2 versions.

It has recently commenced production of a much advanced Block-3 version of JF-17, which has become a glowing symbol of Sino-Pakistan defense cooperation. This aircraft will become the backbone of the PAF in the coming years and will replace most of the aging aircrafts in PAF’s inventory.

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In the Maritime Domain

A significant agreement was signed in April 2005 under which China would build four F-22 P Frigates for Pakistan Navy with the associated transfer of technology. Pakistan Navy also acquired some helicopters and a survey ship.

Then in 2017, Pakistan signed a contract to acquire 4 Chinese Type 54 Guided Missile Frigates. These are the most technologically advanced Chinese frigates with modern radars and long-range missiles.

Pakistan has also contracted to acquire 8 Chinese Type 39 B, Hangor Class submarines with advanced Air Independent Propulsion Systems. Four of the submarines would be built, in China, while the other four would be constructed at the Karachi Shipyard.

The submarines would enhance the offensive capabilities of the Pakistan Navy and become an essential component of Pakistan’s second-strike capability.

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Pakistan Navy is also likely seeking cooperation in long-range maritime patrol aircraft, unmanned surveillance drones, and helicopters. The Navy has already been operating Chinese-origin fast patrol and missile boats since 1970.

PLA Navy and its Pakistani counterpart also conduct regular joint exercises to enhance operational capabilities and inter-operability. The construction of the Gwadar Port with Chinese financial and technical assistance is a living testament to the depth and breadth of Sino-Pakistan relations.

This strategic port, located just 98 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz, links China’s Western regions with the Arabian Sea.

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Strategic cooperation

Many myths have been created about China’s clandestine assistance in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. China has, however, always maintained that it adheres to its non-proliferation obligations.

In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration decided to impose sanctions on Pakistan and China for China’s alleged supply of 500 ring magnets to Pakistan with likely use in the enrichment program.

However, after the Chinese assurances to the US, the sanctions against China were withheld. Another issue that raised eyebrows in Washington was the Chinese sale of a small number of M-11 short-range ballistic missiles to Pakistan. The US slapped MTCR related sanctions on both countries.

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China, however, maintained that this transfer was legitimate as the missile with a range of 290 kilometers fell short of the MTCR proscribed range of 300 kilometers. These missiles helped Pakistan prepare for the subsequent development of its indigenous short and medium-range solid-fuel missiles.

Sino-Pakistan Strategic Cooperation

However, in the nuclear domain, the more significant aspect of Chinese assistance to Pakistan has been in peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

In the 1980s and 90s, when the Western industrialized nations denied Pakistan access to nuclear power reactors, China came to Pakistan’s help by agreeing to supply Pakistan with a 320 MWe Pressurized Water Reactor to be built at Chashma Nuclear Complex.

The foundation of this deal was laid in a 1986 bilateral agreement for scientific and technological cooperation. The construction of the reactor commenced in 1992, and it started commercial operations in 2000.

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Since then, Chashma-2, 3, and 4 have been built in the complex and became fully functional in 2011, 2016, and 2020, respectively. An agreement was signed between China and Pakistan in 2017 to build a Hualong One, also called ACP1000 power plant with a capacity of 1100 MWe as unit 5 of the Chashma complex.

Simultaneously, two ACP 1000 type power reactors with a capacity of 1100 MWe, each designated as K2 and K3 are under construction near Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) since 2015 and 2016, respectively. The construction of K2 has already been completed, while K3 is likely to be completed in 2022.

It’s noteworthy that all these power plants meet the international safety standards under IAEA safeguards, and their construction has been approved by its Board of Governors. Once completed, these reactors will provide environmentally clean energy to Pakistan and significantly increase the ratio of nuclear power in Pakistan’s overall energy mix.

It is also worth noting that the four units already operating at Chashma have produced electric power at a capacity ratio of over 85% compared with the usual 30-40 efficiency of the Thermal Power Plants in Pakistan.

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Given the ambitious goals of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission to increase the nuclear power generation capacity to 8800 MW from the current around 3600 MW taking into account the K2 and K3 as well, China’s steadfast support has been an important contributing factor in progress towards the achievement of that ambitious goal.

Sino-Pakistan Strategic Cooperation
Chashma Power Units 1-4

Good neighborliness and friendly cooperation

During the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to Islamabad in April 2005, the two countries signed the “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighbourly Relations” on April 5, 2005.

The foundation for this treaty was laid during President Musharraf’s visit to Beijing in November 2003 wherein a Joint Declaration was signed outlining ten guiding principles on the Directions of Bilateral Cooperation.

The treaty reiterates the two countries’ firm belief that strengthening the good-neighborly friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation is in the two countries’ interest and conducive to regional peace, stability, and development.

The two sides also committed themselves to consolidate the bilateral strategic partnership under international law and the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. Pakistan and China also agreed to refrain from joining any alliance or bloc, which infringes upon the other party’s sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.

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It also identified multiple areas of mutual understanding and cooperation. The treaty has institutionalized the multi-faceted and time-tested relationship between the two neighbors. China also categorically assured Pakistan to defend its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.’ The two Prime Ministers signed 22 agreements to boost cooperation in defense, political, trade, and economic areas.

China-Pakistan relationship has been described with various platitudes such as “all-weather” friendship, “higher than mountains and deeper than oceans,” and the two countries also call themselves “Iron Brothers.”

The relationship has withstood the test of time and has steadily grown over the years encompassing political, defense, and now economic sphere as well. The two countries have stood by each other at international forums and have rendered support to one another on issues of core concerns.

For instance, Pakistan unequivocally supports the one-China principle and has supported the unification of Taiwan with China. It has also supported China whenever Western countries have targeted it on human rights like in Xinjiang and Tibet.

China, on its part, has always supported Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It also supports Pakistan’s principled position on Kashmir and supports the peaceful resolution of this dispute through negotiations between India and Pakistan.

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The two countries have also shown understanding for the other’s compulsions and legitimate interests. For instance, Pakistan didn’t object to the expansion of trade between China and India, while China didn’t object to Pakistan’s status as a Major Non-NATO ally of the US during the global war on terror.

In recent times China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has symbolized the expanding economic dimension of the relationship. China has rendered valuable financial assistance during difficult economic conditions in Pakistan in recent years.

In short, the two countries have set a shining example of cordiality, mutual understanding, trustworthiness, and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs for other countries in the world to emulate.

Dr. Naeem Salik is currently working as a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad, and was a former Director Arms Control &Disarmament A airs at the Strategic PlansDivision. His publications include Genesis of South Asian Nuclear Deterrence, Oxford University Press, 2009, Learning to Live with the Bomb, Oxford University Press, 2017, among many others. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science & International Relations from the University of Western Australia.

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