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China is Pakistan’s Key Qualitative Driver

Today, the Armed Forces of Pakistan have at least three marquee and indispensable big-ticket weapon systems in the pipeline from China: in 2015, it inked a purchase of eight air-independent propulsion (AIP)-powered submarines; in 2017, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) confirmed that its fifth-generation fighter (FGF) program – Project Azm – is being developed with Chinese support; and in 2018, the Pakistan Navy ordered two additional Type 054A frigates, totaling its order to four ships by 2021.[1] [2] [3]

Be it fiscal constraints, struggling ties with the West (particularly the US), inability to access analogous technology from other sources or – and potentially, most importantly – an alignment of strategic interests (or concerns) between Islamabad and Beijing, the supply of this equipment is vital to Pakistan’s ability to sustain and, potentially, extend its conventional capabilities vis-à-vis India’s advancements. However, the procurement track is assuming more than simply the need for alternatives (to inaccessible Western arms).

Rather, the breadth of these investments – notably Project Azm – could lay the groundwork for Pakistan to leverage China’s research and development (R&D) funding, industrial capacity and the scale generated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to secure qualitatively advantageous solutions.

Most Countries Have a Principal Supplier

The availability of technology, especially core inputs such as engines and semi-conductors, is limited to a handful of countries. This is a critical point because politically-driven claims of indigenization has a general consequence of raising unrealistic expectations or surprises. For example, when Pakistan sought its next-generation submarine platform in the late-2000s, some had asked why Pakistan would need one when it apparently produces the Agosta 90B at Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW).

However, Pakistan does not source the critical inputs necessary for an entirely indigenous turnkey line of submarines. Be it the Agosta 90B or the forthcoming Hangor (II) submarines from China, local production at KSEW is contingent on importing those critical inputs (e.g. propulsion, steel, electronics, etc) from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).[4] Once that foreign supply channel is untenable (e.g. due to cost and/or foreign relations issues), the weapon system in question is also untenable.

On the other hand, the reality of the global arms environment is that most countries, including most major powers, rely on a principal supplier (at least for core inputs, if not more). Limits in terms of generating the necessary scale, insufficient R&D funding and lack of R&D capacity in terms of infrastructure and educated human capital have basically left the US, China and (to a lesser extent) Russia as the sole powers that can maintain truly turnkey manufacturing at every level. France has significant indigenous capacity, though it too (as shown through its participation Future Air Combat System or FCAS with Germany) requires others to help build scale. Otherwise, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and others in Western Europe have opted to either partner among themselves or procure from the US.

Thus, Pakistan’s reliance on a principal supplier is not surprising. In fact, thanks to China’s rise as a leading industrial power, Pakistan has been able to shift its supply channels from the US and Western Europe to China. In addition to shielding itself from the immediate effects of Western supply constraints, Pakistan is also able to capitalize on the PLA’s scale to procure increasingly sophisticated arms at affordable cost. As the PLA – especially the Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) – increasingly fill their respective inventories with contemporary systems, Pakistan can as well. The generational gap in mainstay systems between Pakistan and more affluent countries can plausibly close – thanks to the Chinese.

China’s Incentive for Arming Pakistan

Certainly, China wields significant leverage over Pakistan. As its principal supplier, it can choose to shape Pakistan’s conventional and, to a great extent, nuclear deterrence capabilities (e.g. the forthcoming AIP submarines are expected to deploy submarine-launched cruise missiles/SLCM compatible for miniaturized nuclear warheads) much in the manner the US has opted to (or sought to limit) through the decades.

However, bar internal regulatory controls (such as Beijing mandating export variants of its mainstay arms), it does not appear that China is averse to militarily strengthening Pakistan. Rather, current its geo-political realities could dictate a reinforced emphasis on having a relatively strong Pakistan, at least militarily.

In terms of the underlying geo-political reality, Pakistan is among a handful of neighbours with whom the Chinese do not maintain a territorial dispute. As discussed in an earlier Quwa Premium article, Pakistan and China are not traditional allies, but they could make for productive partners. In this sense, the lack of territorial disputes between the two along with an increasingly common set of concerns (i.e. India and, to an extent, the US) sets the tone for the two to cooperate where possible (i.e. defence).

Interestingly, the US also formalized India’s relevance as a contender to China by renaming its U.S. Pacific Command into Indo-Pacific Command.[5] Lynn Kuog of the Brookings Institute noted, “Adding the Indian Ocean to the mix [of the Pacific Ocean] dilutes China’s influence: It increases the size of the pond and adds other fish that are less amenable to swimming to its tune.”[6] Thus, it follows as an option (among others) that if India is brought to ‘dilute’ China’s influence in the Pacific Ocean, that a counter-force ought to be raised in India’s native theatre so that its attention is not purely focused on China.

Critical to that counter-force strategy would be paving way for Pakistan to access qualitative drivers, and if those cannot be had with current Chinese solutions, then the door could be opened to enabling Pakistan to utilize China’s R&D strengths. The PAF’s Project Azm could be a distant example of that eventuality: it appears to be a clean-sheet design being developed with R&D support from China. However, there are a number of nearer-term programs that could indicate as much – i.e. Pakistan’s space development.

From being a marginal entity, 2018 has seen Pakistan’s Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) grow in prominence through the finalization of two major satellite programs along with a push to conduct feasibility studies on a spate of additional programs – with Chinese collaboration. The Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite 01 (PRSS-01) is due to launch by the end of 2018 and, in turn, provide Pakistan with its first nationally-owned space-based imaging asset. This will be joined by the PakSat Multi-Mission (PakSat-MM1) communications satellite (SATCOM) and, subsequently, the PRSS-02 imaging satellite with “sub-meter” image capture capabilities.[7] [8] The PRSS-01 and PakSat-MM1 cost $209.8 million and $238.48 million US, respectively, and are backed by loans from China.[9]

It is difficult to see Pakistan unilaterally limit the scope of any of these costly assets to purely civilian and commercial uses, especially since space-based image intelligence (IMINT) and military SATCOM are critical assets sought by major powers. IMINT enables Pakistan to build current situational awareness of India in terms of identifying high-value targets and observing macro-movements. SATCOM (which can be had by integrating Ka-band and/or X-band transponders to PakSat-MM1) would enable Pakistan to communicate with its platforms – such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – at beyond-line-of-sight (BLoS) range. In the case of Project Azm’s medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV, Pakistan can fully exploit its inherent ferry range, enabling to undertake UAV intelligence (and potentially interdiction) efforts at long-range.

Through the provision of loans, its existing expertise and scale in these areas, China is evidently helping Pakistan build capabilities that were previously not in the discussion, at least on the forefront. Pakistan is indicating as much by also proclaiming intent to secure its own “independent satellite navigation for both civilian and strategic purposes.” There is an implication that satellite navigation (SATNAV) is being sought for military purposes, i.e. supporting delivery platforms and stand-off range munitions. Thus – and to an extent, quite suddenly – China has made Pakistan’s space program a strategic factor.

Pursuing Defence Alignment

The Project Azm FGF could potentially be the litmus test for determining if genuine alignment can be had between Pakistan and China in terms of defence requirements. In pursuing a clean-sheet design, it would make sense for Pakistan to seek both China’s expertise and scale to make Project Azm cost-effective. But scale is contingent on Project Azm also meeting the requirements of the PLAAF and/or PLAN. Today, the PLAAF’s principal next-generation fighter is the J-20; the J-10 and J-11 are still being produced as mainstay fighters for both the PLAAF and PLAN (albeit, the latter is largely focused on J-11 derivatives).

For Pakistan, the goal is to make qualitative drivers – such as a truly capable FGF – cost-effective, and for that, it will require access to China’s marquee development efforts. The question now is whether China is in enough need of Pakistan to facilitate that unprecedented course, especially in terms of opening access to its cutting-edge (and sensitive or non-export centric) technology. The geo-strategic ingredients for this could already be in play thanks to the White House’s efforts to break the ice with North Korea (and, as an implication, cool ties between China and its sole official ally). However, the continued sense that Pakistan wishes to maintain its position as a US ally could be among the obstacles to its own defence interests.

[1]  “Pakistan Signs Contract To Acquire Two Chinese Naval Warships”. Associated Press of Pakistan. 01 June 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 June 2018).

[2]  Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) Yearbook 2015-2016 Part II. Government of Pakistan. p83

[3] Naveed Siddiqui. “Intruders traced on radar won’t be able to go back, warns air chief.” Dawn News. 07 December 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 09 June 2018).

[4] MoDP. 2015-2016. Part II. p83.

[5] Lynn Kuok. “Negotiating the Indo-Pacific security landscape: What the Shangri-La Dialogue tells us.’ Brookings Institute. 08 June 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 09 June 2018).

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Pakistan Successfully Acquires Another Communication Satellite.” Associated Press of Pakistan. 22 March 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 09 June 2018).

[8] “Indigenous Facility Planned To Develop Satellites.” Associated Press of Pakistan. 14 May 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 09 June 2018).

[9]  “Public Sector Development Programme.” Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform. Government of Pakistan. June 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 28 April 2018).

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