By Farhan Bokhari
When Pakistan’s military claimed its first attack in October using a home-built drone to hit a Taliban stronghold, western officials were quick to search for clues to a Chinese connection.
Experts say Pakistan’s “Burraq”, one of the first two indigenously built armed drones, bears a striking resemblance to China’s CH-3.
Officials lauded the drone that equipped Pakistan with a technology that has been denied them by the US in 15 years as a key Washington ally in the campaign against terror.
“The Americans have given us billions of dollars and military equipment like F-16s since the 9/11 attacks,” says one senior Pakistani foreign ministry official. “But whenever we asked for armed drones, we were refused and the Americans always told us that was sensitive technology.”
Though Pakistani officials deny suggestions of Chinese involvement in the country’s drone programme, western officials remain unconvinced as military links between Beijing and Islamabad tighten.
Earlier this year, China confirmed an agreement to sell eight submarines to Pakistan in Beijing’s largest ever single defence export order.
Rana Tanveer Hussain, Pakistan’s minister of defence production, has confirmed that half of the eight submarines will be built at the Karachi shipyard and engineering works, boosting Pakistan’s shipbuilding capacity.
“The two projects [building four submarines in China and four in Pakistan] will begin simultaneously,” he said, while commending China as an “all-weather friend”.
Analysts say Pakistan is seeking to make China its main supplier of military hardware, partly due to the looser financial terms offered by Beijing, replacing traditional suppliers from the west.
One indication of China’s emergence as a rising arms exporter was highlighted in a recent report by the Sweden-based Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which concluded that China had increased its arms exports 143 per cent in the past five years, replacing Germany to become the world’s third-largest exporter after the US and Russia. China’s biggest customer during the period was Pakistan which, according to the SIPRI, bought 41 per cent of China’s exported arms.
“China’s capacity to indigenously produce military platforms has made significant gains over the past decade or so, and gone are the days when it simply used to copy Soviet or Russian designs, so countries buying Chinese equipment like Pakistan certainly stand to gain,” says Peter Felstead, editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, the global defence publication.
“The gap between Chinese capabilities and those of the west have been narrowed, except in a few areas such as the production of aero-engines, for which Chinese-built platforms remain dependent on Russian imports.”
Mr Felstead’s reference to Russian components is most visible in the case of the JF-17 “Thunder” fighter jet, jointly manufactured by China and the Pakistan Air Force at its Pakistan Aeronautical Complex facility just north of Islamabad. A senior Pakistan defence ministry official confirmed that the JF-17, which will become the PAF’s main second-line fighter jet, will be “powered for the foreseeable future” with the Russian-built RD-93 engine, overlooking Beijing’s offer of a Chinese engine.
Pieter Wezeman of the SIPRI says Chinese military equipment is at a disadvantage for not having been used in conflict situations, unlike hardware from western suppliers which comes with a combat history. “The only place where Chinese equipment is known to have performed alongside equipment from other suppliers is Pakistan,” he notes.
In the case of Pakistan’s use of its first armed drone, Mr Wezeman says it is important to remember that it was used against Taliban targets in a remote region along the Afghan border, and it was not challenged by enemy aircraft. “One has to be careful before one sees this as a breakthrough,” he adds.
Still, western defence officials say Beijing’s strategy of offering significantly lower prices and a virtual absence of political strings gives China a rising presence in international markets.