Pakistan has been promised an urgent delivery of a fresh batch of 50 advanced multi-role JF-17 Thunder fighter jets by China during the visit last week of Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani to Beijing.
India has officially protested saying this will affect the strategic defense balance in the region. So what's the fuss all about; why does Pakistan need these planes and why is India alarmed? Contrary to perceptions, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's China visit and the Thunder deal is not an exclusive response to the Osama operation by the US, which has been hailed by New Delhi much to Islamabad's chagrin.
Pakistan has for years been trying to replace its ageing F-16s fleet of 40 fighter jets that it secured in the 1980s from the US, about a dozen of which are out of service. The urge to augment its air muscle by Pakistan is also a response to India's ambitious plan to purchase a staggering 1,500 combat planes over a 10-year period that began in 2005. As part of this plan, India this month moved closer to clinch the biggest fighter aircraft deal of the world in 20 years which will cost over $10bn and secure India about 125 fourth generation multi-role combat jets. Half of these will reportedly be based in India’s western sector (read Pakistan-specific). These will be European jets, not American F-16s, which were surprisingly rejected from the tripartite race involving American F-16, French Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon.
India, of course, has the burgeoning economy and the cash needed to buy what it wants. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India in 2010 replaced China as the world's top weapons importer, as it aims to modernise its armed forces and project power through the region. India received 9 per cent of the volume of international transfers of 'major conventional weapons' from 2006 to 2010, topping China, South Korea and Pakistan. India spent over $41bn on defense in 2010, which was 2.7 per cent of its GDP. India was the ninth highest military spender of the world in 2010. China was the second highest, spending $117bn – 2.1 per cent of its GDP. Pakistan spent an estimated $5.7bn – 2.9 per cent of its GDP.
Like India, China too has the thriving economy and spare cash to build its military might and undertake regular upgrades to calibrate its needs with capacity but the Pakistani economy has been tanking for a while now and there's barely enough money to fight an in-country insurgency by a tenacious umbrella group of terror outfits. But the instinctive reflex to keep a minimum air deterrence vis-à-vis India means Pakistan 'has to' restore the edge in the sky being eaten away by its ageing strike squadrons. Pakistan has a deal to get about a dozen F-16s from the US but these are too expensive and too few for Pakistan's comfort. Hence the Thunder option. While an F-16 will set back Pakistan by a cool $125m, the J-15 will cost 'only' $25m. That means $1.25bn for a batch of 50. The same number of F-16s would have cost $6.26bn.
While that's the budget side of things, the raison d ’etre of the mania to secure their respective skies lies in primal strategic calculations. All three – China, India and Pakistan – are nuclear powers. That in its self may not be super extraordinary but what is not normal is that the tense relationships between two sets of them and an unusually good relationship between one set. China and India are rival economic, military and political powers. Their nuclear doctrines calibrate worse case scenarios based on their respective offensive capabilities and build response capacities, part of which is mounting minimum air surveillance and air strike capacities. Pakistan and India are hardly the best of friends, having fought three formal and one informal war. The fourth – Kargil – was fought within a year of ending their nuclear ambiguity and testing nuclear in 1998. Four-fifths of Pakistan's armed forces and nearly all of their offensive artillery postures are eastward toward India. A third of India's formidable military assets – roughly five times Pakistan's – are Pakistan-ready.
The odd relationship out among the combination within this nuclear troika is Pakistan and China. Odd not because it is unexpected but because it is inevitable. India has fought wars with both China and Pakistan while Beijing and Islamabad have never. The maxim of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' makes sense to cultivate by these two. However, because of the policies and goals and economic and military capacities, this is not an equal relationship. China gets the satisfaction of strategic policy encirclement of India by being Pakistan's 'all-weather friend'. All Pakistan gets is a guarantee of no veto against it in the United Nations. China doesn't do grants, aid and budgetary support – the three perennial shopping items in Pakistan's basket. The best it does is investment and that's purely profit-centric, Beijing managing to recoup any money it 'gives away' in this shape to Pakistan. The 50 Thunder jets is the perfect ingredient of this unequal but functional relationship: Pakistan restores some of its India-centric edge in the sky while China actually gets money from Pakistan to install strategic air restraints over India towards the side of India where Beijing is not itself present! Hence the Indian concern at the Thunder deal between Islamabad and Beijing.
But the problem, from a citizen's perspective in Pakistan, is that despite their one war, China and India are also major trade partners while Pakistan is a small fry when it comes to being a commerce pair. According to the Confederation of Indian Industry, while international trade has been growing at around 15 per cent on an average, India-China trade has increased by more than 50 per cent annually in the last five years. In 2008, China became India's largest trading partner and the bilateral annual trade between the two countries touched $52bn. India has emerged as the 7th largest export market of China and 10th largest trade partner. The bilateral trade between the two most populous countries is set to cross $100bn per annum by end of 2012. Since it is projected that, by 2050, India and China will be the two leading economies in the world, it is inevitable that bilateral trade between the two countries will be among the most important economic relationships in the world. And all this between two traditional rivals! Why should China want to disturb this trade balance in its favor for Pakistan’s obscure advantage when Beijing can get Indian money to beef up its military edge against New Delhi!
The Sino-Pak annual trade by comparison is puny despite some strides in recent years. It has increased from $1.9bn in 2002 to $6.9bn in 2011. The two have vowed to ramp this up to $15bn by 2014. China, which has surpassed the EU as Pakistan's second-largest trading partner, exported goods worth $5.5bn to Pakistan in 2010 and imported $1.3bn worth of products. This means Pakistan is a net exporter of money to China! And yet Pakistan crows about a relationship that is 'deeper than the oceans and higher than the mountains'. The reality is that Pakistan sells itself cheap for this grossly unequal relationship for merely a veto shield at the UN.
The real story is not that China is providing Pakistan a clutch of fighter planes or that India has problems with China squeezing it a bit in the western sector – after all India's own fighter jet acquisition spree more than neutralises any strategic edge Beijing or Islamabad can sculpt from this deal. The story is in what has been left unsaid: why can't Pakistan invest $1.25bn to be paid for the planes in its tanking economy to revive it and with the profits generated buy whatever planes it wants? After all Pakistan can't afford to go to war with India anytime soon as it only has six days of oil reserves and can't push the fight more than six days and neither does China want Delhi and Islamabad to actually fight a war. So while Pakistan has an as-yet unnecessary edge in the sky what about the situation on the ground? Where will the money come from to cut the burgeoning poverty, unemployment and illiteracy?
Adnan Rehmat is a journalist, analyst and media development specialist. He heads Intermedia, a Pakistani media support NGO.