NIGHTWATCH: China-Pakistan-US–New Dynamics

02 China, 02 Diplomacy, 03 India, 08 Wild Cards, 10 Security

China-Pakistan: Citing unidentified “media reports,” Pakistan’s Dunya news reported on 18 May that China will give 50 JF-17 aircraft to Pakistan on an emergency basis.

Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani, on the second day of his visit to China, and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao discussed bilateral relations and other strategic matters, including the US Abbottabad operation and its effects on the region.

Comment: The last time China made a special effort to help Pakistan on an emergency basis by providing combat aircraft was after the near-war with India in 2002. India began preparing for war almost immediately after the bombing of the Indian parliament by a Pakistan-based and supported terrorist group, the LeT, in December 2001. Pakistan followed.

India brought to full combat readiness and deployed 750,000 soldiers, hundreds of combat aircraft and both naval fleets to attack Pakistan in early January 2002. Pakistan’s armed forces, under Musharraf as Chief of the Army Staff and leader of Pakistan, failed to complete their war preparations. Last minute US and British diplomatic intervention prevented war.

China has a history of responding quickly to Pakistani requests for emergency military aid. In 2002, China provided emergency combat aircraft to Pakistan after the threat of war with India eased. During the 1971 India-Pakistan general war, it provided emergency ammunition and other supplies by road to prevent the total defeat of Pakistan. It is once again honoring its longstanding alliance commitment.

The dominant issue in Pakistan’s parliamentary and internal military debate about the Abbottabad raid was the lack of any response to an armed air intrusion. The air force chief admitted that radars on the Afghan border do not operate continuously, as they do along the Indian border, because of the expense and the assessed lack of an air threat from Afghanistan. Pakistan also maintains no fighter-interceptors on alert along the Afghan border because of the expense and shortage of resources.

The timing of the Chinese announcement indicates it is tailored to help correct the deficiencies in Pakistani air defenses along the Durand Line. The fighters signify that Pakistan has made a strategic reappraisal of the air threat from Afghanistan. The Pakistan Air Force now recognizes the need to defend that airspace. The Chinese also will have shared insights about and experience with radar surveillance and other air defenses in mountainous terrain. Other air defense equipment support is likely to be provided as well.

As NightWatch has reported on several occasions, the US relationship with Pakistan has been irreparably broken. A new, more arms-length relationship is evolving in which the US is a friend for some purposes and a potential threat for others.

One implication is that the operating environment for drones and other aircraft appears to be about to change. The drones and their crews have ably demonstrated their war fighting capabilities under conditions in which the US owns the airspace. That is an important benchmark. However, their performance in a non-permissive environment is a different, important benchmark, which has yet to be established. It is about to be, along the Durand Line.

The second implication is that, by acting quickly, China has drawn Pakistan more tightly into its sphere of influence, countering a decade of US aid and energy. Prime Minister Gilani said on 17 May on arriving, China is Pakistan’s best friend.

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