BEIJING: China has agreed to expedite the delivery of 50 fighter jets to Pakistan, a newspaper reported on Friday, as Islamabad tries to deepen ties with Beijing as an alternative to increasingly fragile relations with the United States.
Pakistan's already strained ties with its ally and major donor were battered after US forces on May 2 killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a garrison town near Islamabad.
The fact that bin Laden was found in Abbottabad, and had been living there for years, has prompted many in Washington to call for a review of the billions of US civilian and military aid that Pakistan receives.
As the pressure mounts in Washington, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani has courted “best friend” China, its biggest arms supplier, during a four-day visit that ends on Friday.
The Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed high-ranking Pakistani Air Force spokesman, in Beijing with Gilani, as saying the jointly developed JF-17 jets would be in addition to another batch of the same aircraft that is currently being assembled in Pakistan.
“We're getting the 50 jets, on top of the ones we already have. Something has been agreed in Beijing, so they'll be expedited,” the spokesman said without giving details.
There was no immediate confirmation of the deal from officials in China or Pakistan. The JF-17 “Thunder” programme dates back to 1999 and is aimed at reducing Pakistan's dependence on Western companies for advanced fighters.
The jets are a single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft costing an estimated dollar 15 million each. The Pakistani Air Force has ordered 150 “Thunders”, which it may increase to 250. The 50 mentioned in the report are likely part of the larger order.
In February 2010, Pakistan fielded its first JF-17 squadron with 14 aircraft.
The close ties between China and Pakistan reflect long-standing shared wariness of their common neighbour, India, and a desire to hedge against US influence across the region.
Premier Wen Jiabao assured Gilani on Wednesday of China's “all-weather friendship” and said Pakistan had made “huge sacrifices” in the international struggle against terrorism.
That contrasted sharply with the US Congressmen's criticism of Pakistan's failure to know bin Laden's whereabouts and insinuations that its powerful military was in some way complicit in hiding the al Qaeda leader.
For its part, Pakistan is furious at the United States for violating its sovereignty by staging the secret raid that killed the world's most wanted man.
Gilani is due to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao later on Friday.