The recent headlines have been dominated by the progressively deteriorating relationship between the United States and Pakistan. The killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory in May by U.S. forces exacerbated the widening rift and further overshadowed the recent staging of a sensitive military exercise involving Pakistani and Chinese forces. It is against this backdrop that China’s strong ties with Pakistan in the diplomatic, economic, and military realms have gained salience. Indeed, the timing of Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s four-day visit to China, which commenced on May 17—the third series of meetings between Prime Minister Gilani and Chinese leaders in less than 17 months—illustrates the extent to which Islamabad counts on Beijing for support during this historic low point in U.S.-Pakistan relations (The News [Karachi], May 17). Rumors that Pakistan seriously considered allowing China to access remnants of a secret U.S. stealth helicopter that went down during the raid against Bin Laden, thus allowing China a firsthand looking into the latest stealth technology employed by the U.S. military—Pakistan has since agreed to return the remnants of the helicopter to the United States—also reflect the priority Pakistan places on proving its worth to China (ABC News, May 16).
While news of cooperation between the armed forces of longtime allies would normally come at no surprise, details surrounding “Shaheen 1” (“Eagle” in Urdu) remain scant. The exercise was composed of what both sides acknowledged to be “operational” aerial maneuvers involving the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), held over a period of a few weeks in March 2011. The exercise represented the first time PLAAF combat aircraft deployed to Pakistan and joined alongside their Pakistani counterparts in operational maneuvers in Pakistani airspace (The News, March 18). In addition to “Shaheen 1,” both countries also plan to stage joint ground maneuvers involving the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its Pakistani counterpart in Pakistan later in 2011. The exercise also took place against the backdrop of the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Pakistan and the recognition of 2011 by both countries as the “Year of Pakistan-China Friendship” (GEO Pakistan [Islamabad], January 2).
China’s participation in “Shaheen 1” marks another milestone in its limited but expanding expeditionary military capability. Perhaps most importantly, China’s involvement in “Shaheen 1” reflects its growing eagerness to showcase its expeditionary capability in countries the United States considers strategic allies . In spite of the current crisis in relations, the United States continues to count Pakistan as a vital ally. In regard to the war in Afghanistan, for instance, Pakistan is indispensable. The main supply line that sustains U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan originates in the Port of Karachi. At the same time, the central role of Pakistan in U.S. operations in Afghanistan has not precluded Beijing from extending its hand to Islamabad.
Designed to foster enhanced joint air capabilities and to underscore the priority both sides place on preserving bilateral military ties, the maneuvers executed during “Shaheen 1” featured combat aircraft from the PAF and PLAAF, as well as technicians and other participants (Xinhua News Agency, March 5). Specifics involving the exercise, including the types of aircraft deployed by both forces, the total number of aircraft and personnel involved, the exact nature and scope of the missions performed and the location of the maneuvers, have not been disclosed by either Pakistan or China. A press release issued by the PAF, however, did contain a photograph of Pakistani and Chinese pilots and other personnel participating in “Shaheen 1” dated March 11; 13 Pakistani and 12 Chinese officers appear in the photograph (Pakistan Air Force Press Release, March 11). Concerns that the PAF may have deployed its fleet of advanced U.S.-built F-16 Fighting Falcons alongside PLAAF combat aircraft likely raised concerns in Washington. In addition to potentially exposing sensitive U.S. technology to Beijing, the PLAAF also stands to gain great insights into the operating performance of the aircraft in relation to their own. The PAF currently boasts a fleet of 63 F-16s of different variants (45 A/Bs and 18 C/Ds) in its inventory and it recently entered into negotiations with the United States for additional planes. The PAF’s current fleet of F-16s is also scheduled to undergo comprehensive upgrades (Aviation Week, March 8). In spite of the expected concerns in the United States about the potential deployment of F-16s during “Shaheen 1,” there is no evidence to otherwise indicate that Pakistan deployed F-16s during the exercise .
The absence of detailed official statements by Islamabad and Beijing or other publicly available information regarding the dynamics of “Shaheen 1” did not prevent outside observers from making their own estimates about what transpired during the exercise. A number of official photographs showing Pakistani and Chinese pilots preparing for flight missions and engaging in other activities during “Shaheen 1,” which circulated on websites and online discussion forums dedicated to Pakistani defense and foreign policy issues such as Pakistan Air Force Falcons and Pakistan Defense, however, elicited extensive commentary, including among many claiming to be Pakistanis, Chinese, Indians, or in some way affiliated to (or at least knowledgeable of) Pakistani military issues . Some of the photographs posted online showed Pakistani and Chinese pilots seated inside the cockpit of what appeared to be a Chinese-built Shenyang J-11BS air superiority fighter. The J-11BS is regarded as an indigenous version of Russia’s Su-30 Flanker fighter series; while relying on the Su-30’s mainframe, the aircraft is said to be equipped with Chinese-designed and manufactured engines, avionics, radar and weaponry (Aviation Week, November 5, 2006).
Political and Military Implications
In many respects, “Shaheen 1” represents a continuation of what is already a broad and multifaceted bilateral military relationship that has been cultivated over decades. While both Pakistan and China deny that the exercise was designed to “target” any third parties, aspects of the exercise, as well as its timing, illuminate the trajectory of wider trends that are having far-reaching geopolitical impacts on South and East Asia (Xinhua News Agency, March 5). In this context, the implications of “Shaheen 1” are best understood in political as well as military strategic terms.
The timing of “Shaheen 1” must be considered against the background of the current poor state of U.S.-Pakistan relations. Pakistan has watched nervously as the United States expanded its ties with India in recent years while the latter continues to make impressive inroads into Afghanistan, a country Pakistan sees as vital to its concept of strategic depth and its overall security posture relative to its rival India. Bin Laden’s presence and subsequent death in Pakistan—and the likely existence of a support network within the echelons of state power that allowed him to remain there—adds another layer of complexity to Pakistan’s predicament. Losing faith in the durability of its alliance with the United States, an increasingly insecure Pakistan feels compelled to act; Islamabad may have once calculated that navigating a fine line between Beijing and Washington represented the most prudent path to protect its national interests, but a tilt away from the United States and toward China may prove more beneficial down the line.
The symbolism underlying Islamabad’s willingness to host Chinese combat aircraft on its territory in the current political climate was clear. Such a bold measure is indicative of China’s evolution in recent years and the confidence it has nurtured among its allies as both a reliable and credible partner. Pakistan sees China as a country that delivers on its promises, an “all-weather friend,” according to Prime Minister Gilani (Dawn [Karachi], May 10). The United States, on the other hand, is viewed as impervious to Pakistani concerns and a meddler in its affairs. For its part, China is eager to exploit the widening diplomatic chasm between the United States and Pakistan. In light of the circumstances behind the killing of Bin Laden on Pakistani soil and the concomitant threats by Washington to cut financial aid to Islamabad, China found an opportunity to offset U.S. criticism of Pakistan’s conduct. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao seized the occasion of Gilani’s latest visit to China to acknowledge the “huge sacrifices” endured by Pakistan in “the international fight against terrorism” while adding that Pakistan’s “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity must be respected” (Xinhua News Agency, May 18).
Rhetoric aside, China has backed up its words with substance. During the Pakistan-China Business Cooperation Summit held in Islamabad in December 2010, Prime Minister Jiabao declared that China would “never give up” on Pakistan; the meetings culminated in the signing of 35 agreements and memorandums of understanding regarding cooperation in numerous sectors, including energy, banking, technology, construction, defense, and security, totaling $35 billion (Daily Times [Lahore], December 19, 2010). The volume of Sino-Pakistan bilateral trade hovered close to $7 billion in 2010, an over 30 percent increase over bilateral trade in 2009; Pakistan and China are aiming to achieve bilateral trade by volume of at least $15 billion by 2015 (People’s Daily [Beijing], December 13, 2010).
While the United States remains a critical source of arms to Pakistan, especially advanced weapons platforms such as the F-16, the politics behind U.S. arms transfers to Pakistan and the strict terms that accompany the sales of weapons systems—a humiliating reality, in Pakistan’s perspective, especially in light of the perceived special treatment India receives by the United States and international community in areas related to defense—have driven it further into the arms of China. When it comes to arms exports, Pakistan is China’s biggest customer. Over 40 percent of China’s arms exports are destined for Pakistan. Moreover, China has jointly developed the JF-17 Thunder (known as FC-1 Fierce Dragon in China) multi-role fighter plane with Pakistan. A joint venture between China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAC) and Pakistan’s Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), the JF-17 is currently in operation and available for export (The News, February 9). China has also recently agreed to supply Pakistan with an additional 50 JF-17 fighters and to expedite their transfer to the PAF, a move aimed to demonstrate China’s capacity to fill the vacuum if the United States decides to reduce or eliminate economic and military aid—the United States has provided Pakistan with over $20 billion in economic and military aid over the last decade—to Pakistan (PakTribune [Rawalpindi], May 19; Financial Times [London], May 15). Reports that both sides plan to jointly develop a stealth variant of the JF-17 indicate that future Sino-Pakistan cooperation in this area is in the works (Nawa-i-Waqat [Lahore], April 18; Aviation Week, July 19, 2010). Sino-Pakistan cooperation in the aerospace industry is also seen by Islamabad as a counter to its rival India’s similar cooperation with Russia, as both India and Russia cooperate on a number of joint defense projects involving combat aircraft. China is also keen to keep pace with its rival India in the military sphere (Aviation Week, March 8).
As the United States continues to pressure Pakistan over its nuclear weapons arsenal, China remains a dependable source of nuclear technology. China has also agreed to build additional nuclear reactors in Pakistan. With China’s assistance, Pakistan is believed to be on the cusp of overtaking the United Kingdom as the world’s fifth-largest nuclear weapons power (Maclean’s [Toronto], April 6). A recent report in the Pakistani media also alleged that China declared in “unequivocal terms” during the recent U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings held in Washington in May that any U.S. attack on Pakistan would be “construed as an attack against China” (The News, May 19). The diplomatic, economic, and military support China has given Pakistan during the period of heightened U.S.-Pakistan tensions has not gone unnoticed in Islamabad. Leader of the opposition in Pakistan’s National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, issued the following words: “I pay tribute to China for supporting and assisting Pakistan in every difficult time. I on behalf of the parliament and the people of Pakistan pay tribute to China for supporting Pakistan at this critical time (Associated Press of Pakistan, May 9).
As U.S.-Pakistan relations continue to plummet, the implications of events such as “Shaheen 1” will rightfully be examined through a broader geopolitical lens, particularly in the context of their impacts on U.S.-Sino relations. China is poised to earn considerable strategic benefits by enhancing its relationship with Pakistan. At the same time, however, there are no indications to suggest that it is willing to jeopardize its relationship with the United States over Pakistan. In spite of its opposition to U.S. policy toward Taiwan and the robust U.S. military presence and U.S.-led alliance architecture in East Asia—a region China deems to be part of its rightful sphere of influence—Beijing is likely to operate a pragmatic foreign policy with respect to Pakistan so as to not overly disrupt the balance of power in South Asia and, as a result, alienate the United States. China will also continue to view Pakistan as a crucial strategic ally, and a potential lever over the United States (as well as India), strengthening the bond underpinning Sino-Pakistan relations for years ahead.
For all of its rhetoric, Pakistan lacks the leverage to outmaneuver the United States, even considering the convergence of interests between it and China on issues such as India and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and it surely understands this. Nevertheless, Islamabad’s diplomatic campaign and other activities showcasing its potential to downgrade its relationship with Washington in favor of Beijing may earn it the attention (and concessions) it desires from the United States.
1. In a related point, the PLAAF’s participation in Turkey’s “Anatolian Eagle 2010” aerial exercise in October 2010, an event marking the first instance of Chinese participation in joint military exercises with a NATO member shortly followed by a likewise unprecedented demonstration of Sino-Turkish military cooperation in the form of ground maneuvers in Turkey – the first instance of Chinese ground forces operating jointly with a NATO member on NATO soil – appeared to set a precedent for increased Chinese military activities involving U.S. allies on their territories. For more details, see Chris Zambelis, “Sino-Turkish Strategic Partnership: Implications of Anatolian Eagle 2010, China Brief, January 14, 2011.
2. Considering Turkey’s fleet of advanced F-16s, it is worth noting that the United States expressed similar concerns during “Anatolian Eagle 2010.”
3. For examples of the official photographs posted online of some of the purported Pakistani and Chinese participants in “Shaheen 1,” aircraft deployed during the exercise, and accompanying commentary, see “PAF-PLAAF undertaking joint Air Exercise – Shaheen-1,” Pakistan Air Force Falcons, https://www.paffalcons.com/news/2011/PAF-PLAAF-undertaking-joint-Air-Exercise-Shaheen-1_3182011.php (accessed May 2011); also see “PAF-PLAAF undertaking joint Air Exercise – Shaheen-1,” https://www.defence.pk/forums/military-photos-multimedia/105146-paf-plaaf-undertaking-joint-air-exercise-shaheen-1-a.html (accessed May 2011).