The downward trend in Pak-US relations has pushed Islamabad towards China for the procurement of high-tech weaponry as the United States has again become an unreliable supplier for weaponry, said a Financial Times report.
“We have learnt over time that the Americans are terrible when it comes to honouring their promise,” a former minister told FT. “This was bound to end up in divorce.”
On one hand, the US Congress approved the sale of eight fighter aircraft to Pakistan, on the other the price of the new F-16s was increased from US$270 million to US$700 million – putting it out of Islamabad’s reach. The move was a reflection of policymakers’ perceived ‘failure’ to tackle domestic extremism.
For Pakistan, it was a confirmation that their long-term ally could not be relied upon as the primary source of advanced weapon systems, America’s growing closeness with India further confirmed it.
Consequently, the country shifted its focus to China and jointly manufactured the JF-17 Thunder aircraft with complete transfer of technology. The jet rivals the US-made F-16 aircraft.
The move validated a slow but steady tilt towards China for military procurement as US weapons exports to Pakistan has plummeted from US$1 billion to US$21 million since 2010, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).
Although exports from China fell in the same period with a difference of US$233 million – US$747 million to US$514 million, it remains as the biggest weapons exporter to Islamabad. China is now selling and co-developing high-end systems for which Pakistan once depended on the US.
The tumultuous relationship between Pakistan and the US deteriorated as the Trump administration suspended US$2 billion in military aid. FT observed that Trump needed Pakistan as he “recommits to the war in Afghanistan” but Islamabad was “less responsive than usual” to US demands.
“The Trump administration’s decision to pursue sanctions against Pakistan, alongside Trump’s fiery rhetoric . . . can only push Pakistan further into the arms of Beijing — especially with Pakistan’s shift from US military supplies to Chinese military supplies” said Harrison Akins, a research fellow at the Howard H Baker Jr Centre for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. He further observed that the move will make US mission in Afghanistan more difficult and costly.
“We buy weapons from the Americans off the shelf, but they won’t share technology,” said Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the Senate’s defence committee. “Also, politics doesn’t get in the way of things, whereas the Americans, if they are angry with us, they stop everything.”
The US has used ‘sale of weapons’ as a leverage to manoeuvre its network of military alliances and partnerships – but many of those allies are now looking towards China for weapons exports.
According to Sipri, China saw an 88 per cent increase in its weapons sales between 2011-2015. “Twenty years ago, China did not have the technology to be able to compete with the west, but now there is not much difference,” says Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at Sipri. “Many countries also see Chinese supplies as more secure, as Beijing does not tend to cut them off over awkward issues such as democracy or human rights.”
“People are bored with the US — they have given up on the US. Let them stew in their own juice. Forget about them,” said Hussain.
As the world explores China for weapons, its iron-brother Pakistan has been a buyer for decades – and it has the US to thank for. The relationship was initiated during 1965 war with India when the US placed an arms embargo on Islamabad. A dib in relationships between Pakistan and US leads to an increase in weapons export from China – from providing supplies and information for the development of nuclear weapons in the 1980s and 1990s to the sale of 20 M-11 missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
An analyst at defence research company Jane’s IHS Markit Jon Grevatt told FT that during the last decade, China had “collaborated much more expansively with Pakistan, with the intention of providing its ally with a tactical, military-technical edge”.
A-100 rocket launchers, HQ-16 air defence missile systems and VT-4 tanks are reportedly being tested in Pakistan.
The co-development of JF-17 fighter aircraft is deeply rooted in the dramatic saga of F-16 fighter jets beginning in 1990 when the US cancelled a second shipment while showing concerns over Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
Beijing filled the void with JF-17s – whose parts were made in China but assembled locally. It also shared the technology with Pakistan, allowing the country to manufacture and export the aircraft. The jets cost a third of an F-16s price.
In 2015, the US got another surprise when Pakistan reportedly carried out a strike by a drone resembling a Chinese model against militants along the Pak-Afghan border. The US has frequently turned down requests from Islamabad to buy American drone systems. Giving Beijing an opportunity to help Pakistan develop its own drone technology.
“Arms sales have long been a tool of US foreign policy, to cement alliances and gain influence,” said Wezeman. “Now that Chinese technology is competitive, if American allies start saying they prefer the terms offered by China, that spells trouble for the US.”
A month after the US announced it would not susidise sale of new F-16s, Beijing announced the sale of eight attack submarines to Pakistan for US$5 billion – the biggest single arms export deal in the country’s history. The deal ups Pakistan’s capacity to challenge India in the Indian Ocean – at a time when Washington is enhancing cooperation with India to curtail Chinese maritime expansion. “This is a headache for both the Americans and the Indians,” Wezeman told FT.
“Towards the end of the [Barack] Obama administration, Pakistanis would see drone attacks on their screens every night,” said Opposition Leader in the Senate Sherry Rehman. “This felt not just like an encroachment on our sovereignty, but an act of aggression.”
Speaking to FT, a senior US diplomat said they were not walking away from Pakistan. “We have suspended the security assistance, but our channels of communication are open.”
“The Americans are hectoring us in private now; even at the worst times that was not the case,” said a Pakistani official involved in the diplomatic back channel.
“The problem for Washington is that there will come a time when you run out of levers,” the official told FT. “It is best to keep options and windows open.”