Until five years ago, the US and China shared an almost equal proportion of Pakistan’s arms imports: 39 per cent and 38 per cent respectively. Today, China supplies 63 per cent of Pakistan’s armaments, with the US dropping to 19 per cent and second place.
China’s rise to becoming the world’s third-largest arms exporter was to a large degree helped by heightened demand from Pakistan, which now buys 35 per cent of these exports and is Beijing’s biggest buyer (Bangladesh follows at 20 per cent), according to a February 2016 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
The military supplies are bolstered by unwavering support at a time of heightened tension with India and faltering ties with the US (there was a 73 per cent drop in US security aid over four years to 2015, The Wire reported in August 2016; the US also cancelled the subsidised sale of eight F-16 fighters).
Last month, Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production confirmed a contract with China for the purchase of eight conventional diesel-electric submarines, which will cost between $4 billion to $5 billion (Rs. 25,600 crore to Rs. 33,200 crore), China’s biggest defence export deal.
The submarines could have a nuclear strategic capability — they could be used to launch nuclear-tipped land attack cruise missiles, providing Pakistan with a partial second-strike capability to rival India’s submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles.
The submarines are the latest of several big-ticket arms purchases by Pakistan. Others:
* Between 250 to 300 JF-17 fighter planes jointly developed by China and Pakistan. These will form the backbone of the Pakistani Air Force. Nigeria has signed a memorandum of understanding to purchase an unknown number of JF-17 aircraft, according to IHS Jane’s, a defence/aerospace publication, making Pakistan a defence exporter
* Four 2,5000-ton Zulfiqar-class frigates at a cost of $500 to $750 million. Three of these were constructed in China, the fourth in Karachi
* Four 560-ton Azmat-class fast attack craft, essentially missile boats armed with eight C-802 anti-ship missiles meant for littoral defence. Three of four are being manufactured in Pakistan
* 600 Al-Khalid tanks produced in Pakistan form the backbone of the Pakistan Army’s Armoured Corps. They are variants of Chinese Type 90-II tank.
* Nine HQ-16 medium-range surface-to-air missile systems with a maximum intercept range of 40 km at a cost of $600 million.
* Four Karakoram Eagle airborne early warning & control aircraft (AWACS) at a cost of $278 million.
From 2011 to 2015, China sold $8.4 billion worth of arms, overtaking long-established arms exporters France ($8 billion) and Germany ($6.7 billion), although it still lags the leaders: the US ($47 billion) and Russia ($36.2 billion).
China’s share in the international arms exports market has risen from 3.6 per cent in 2006-10 to 5.9 per cent in 2011-15. France’s market share has declined from 7.1 per cent to 5.6 per cent and Germany’s, from 11 per cent to 4.7 per cent during this period.
The period coincides with China’s emergence as a major global power, seeking to challenge US hegemony across various areas and with enough heft to keep India unbalanced, either directly or through Pakistan.
(In an arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform. Abheet Singh Sethi is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and defence analyst. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org)