When Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with his Pakistani counterpart General Qamar Javed Bajwa this month, the pact had a clear aim of counter-balancing the growing US-India defense cooperation.
While the details of the agreement have not been publicly disclosed, it was widely viewed by observers and analysts as “India-centric” in response to South Asia’s fast-shifting security dynamics.
India and Pakistan’s long-time antagonism is morphing into a new superpower proxy theater, with the US and India converging on one side and China and Pakistan drawing closer together on the other.
Rising US-China competition could have significant implications for South Asia’s regional stability at a delicate juncture, as nations struggle to contain Covid-19 outbreaks and their related economic fallout.
The growing polarization is rendering the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), already a long-time hostage to Indo-Pakistan tensions, dead in the water as a mechanism for managing regional disputes and promoting connectivity.
Smaller South Asian countries are now under increasing pressure to pick superpower sides.
Chinese Defense Minister Wei visited Nepal before he arrived in Pakistan on December 1. His Nepal visit was widely seen as China’s bid to build a ring of South Asian allies to encircle and contain India, a gambit New Delhi is aggressively bidding to counter.
Stronger China-Pakistan ties are central to Beijing’s India containment drive. While the US$60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the “economic face” of this cooperation, Beijing is also helping to build up Pakistan’s military capacities.
The JF-17 Thunder fighter jet, developed as a joint venture between Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAC), is a strong symbol of this cooperation.
Significantly, Pakistan used the jet in its February 2019 showdown with India’s Air force in Kashmir. Beijing is also helping Islamabad to modernize its navy, including with Type 054A/P multi-role stealth frigates that China is now building for Pakistan. Pakistan sees this cooperation as vital for maintaining the balance of power in the Indian Ocean.
Chinese state media reports said Wei called on Pakistan’s leaders “to push the military-to-military relationship to a higher level, so as to jointly cope with various risks and challenges, firmly safeguard the sovereignty and security interests of the two countries and safeguard the regional peace and stability.”
Some Pakistani media reports suggested that the new MoU would pave the way for deeper intelligence sharing and cooperation, including with equipment and information to help track Indian troop movements along the Pakistan-India border.
The reports said China could soon provide Pakistan with technology similar to what China is now using in Ladakh to track Indian military movements and strategically sensitive infrastructure building projects. If so, the secretive MoU marks a clear tit-for-tat move.
The ongoing India-US 2+2 dialogue on defense cooperation aims at increasing Indian military capacity vis-à-vis China through more intelligence-sharing and interoperability of data. That includes greater dissemination of information from radars and other systems on a near real-time basis.
The Indo-US deal, signed in October, includes provisions for sharing sensitive satellite data that allows New Delhi to track the movement of Chinese military forces in and around the contested Ladakh region, where the two sides clashed in July and remain entrenched in a high mountain stand-off.
The 2+2 deal, or the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation, is a particular defense deal that the US signs only with close strategic partners.
It will allow India direct access to a range of sensitive geospatial and aeronautical data collected by the US that could be crucial in any future military action with China.
The deal’s strategic significance lies not only in the fact that it was signed against the backdrop of Indo-China tensions at Ladakh, but also in the context of the Trump administration’s call to build an alliance of “like-minded” powers to push back against China’s rising power.
Whether or not China and Pakistan are “like-minded” is a matter of debate, but they are allies of convenience in the current context.
It is therefore not surprising to see the two sides forging closer ties, particularly as it becomes more apparent to China that India is slowly but surely abandoning its traditional “non-aligned” policy and siding overtly with the US.
As Chinese Communist Party-run media reports have recently said, “if cooperation with Pakistan can constitute a certain kind of deterrent toward India, it may be considered as a good approach to balance regional powers.”
This is seen by some as China’s guiding principle for its South Asia policy, which can be viewed in recent diplomatic overtures made in neighboring countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Maldives, but most clearly in its fast-rising arms sales to Pakistan.
China’s arms sales to Pakistan have risen from US$500 million between 1995 and 1999 to about $2.7 billion between 2015 and 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank.
US arms sales to Pakistan ran on high during the “war on terror” period between 2010 and 2014, reaching an all-time high of almost $2 billion, but dropped to a few hundred million dollars worth of arms between 2015 and 2019.
While “other” sources provided Pakistan with weapons worth more than $2 billion between 1995 and 1999, that figure fell to $1 billion between 2015 and 2019, underscoring Islamabad’s rising reliance on China for its arms, according to the same data.
At the same time, the US and India have moved from almost negligible defense sales to America becoming one of India’s biggest suppliers in recent years.
‘Major Defense Partner’
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, US arms sales to India have risen more than fivefold over the last five years, according to the same SPRI report. Between 2015 and 2019, Russia’s share of defense sales to India fell from 72% to 56%.
In 2016, the US declared India a “Major Defense Partner” (MDP), a designation that allows for more transfers of sophisticated arms and military technologies. The 2+2 and various agreements signed before and after have acted to cement those strategic ties.
Deepening US-India military cooperation is clearly worrying to both Pakistan and China, both of which have heated border disputes with India. Now the two sides are seeking to match that cooperation with similar agreements in a Beijing bid to maintain the region’s balance of power.
That includes the military-steered China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $60 billion plank in China’s wider Belt and Road Initiative.
There are indications that the venture, which has stalled due to security concerns including rising militant attacks on Chinese engineers and workers on related CPEC projects, is transforming from a purely economic to a strategic venture.
The CPEC, while on the surface an economic venture, has already morphed into a military-to-military affair. While the Pakistan Army has already assumed direct control of the CPEC through a parliamentary bill and the creation of a CPEC authority, it is interesting to note that General Wei was keener to discuss the CPEC with his counterpart General Qamar Bajwa than with Pakistani President Imran Khan.
Significantly, the CPEC authority has a direct Chinese presence. Its strategic decision-making body is co-chaired by China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Beijing’s top planning agency.
In this way, Chinese and Pakistani militaries are able to operate largely independent of political parties and in future will be able to shape the project as they deem fit.
While China aims to bolster Pakistan’s defense capabilities to the extent that India remains more focused on Pakistan and less on China, Indian policymakers have started to express concerns of a possible “two-front war” with Pakistan and China over contested territories.
While Pakistan and India’s defense industries are more closely aligned with China and the US respectively than ever, both South Asian powers are increasingly exposed to a wider geopolitical rivalry that may or may not ultimately serve their core national interests.