A China-made JF-17 Pakistani fighter. Image: Facebook

Pakistan is between a rock and hard place in balancing its China and US defense ties.

That security dilemma was on full display at the 11th International Defense Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS) in Karachi, where seven Chinese defense companies showcased an array of advanced weapons to delegates from more than 50 countries and regions.

Among the advanced Chinese weapons on display were Wing Loong drones, CH-series drones, a multi-role drone ship, the Y-9E transport plane, the LY-70 air defense system, VT-4 main battle tank (MBT), SR5 multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), YLC-2E multi-role radar, a command information system, and an electronic warfare defense system, the Communist Party-run Global Times reported.

Pakistan already operates substantial amounts of Chinese military equipment, namely the VT-4 MBT, SH-15 self-propelled howitzer, Type 054 A/P frigates, JF-17 and J-10C fighter jets and the ZDK-03 early warning aircraft, the Global Times report noted.

Spinning those procurements to diplomatic effect, the Global Times report cites an unnamed Pakistani defense official saying that China’s military equipment is “famous internationally” and that defense cooperation between the two sides is exemplary.

An anonymous Chinese military expert, also cited by the state-run Global Times, claimed that China and Pakistan are expected to deepen their defense relations, as Chinese weapons have boosted Pakistan’s national defense as a “system.”

At the same time, China’s arms exports to Pakistan no doubt aim to divert India’s strategic attention from their simmering border disputes in the Himalayas, which in recent years have flared into lethal violence.

Pakistani naval personnel stand guard near a ship carrying containers at the China-invested Gwadar port. Photo: AFP / Aamir Quereshi

Moreover, China may seek to arm Pakistan to better deal with terrorist threats to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the two sides’ US$60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and piracy threats from the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa.

However, China’s military exports to Pakistan may be of dubious quality. These issues make Pakistan’s aging Western weapons, including its US-made F-16s from the 1980s, still its most potent assets against its longtime rival India.

In a June 2022 article for Geopolitica, Fabbri di Valerio notes that Pakistan’s four earlier Chinese-made Zulfiqar frigates are plagued with faulty electronics, serious engine defects and non-functional weapons, forcing the Pakistani Navy to operate the ships with degraded capabilities.

In addition, this April, The Print reported that Pakistan is facing reliability issues with its China-made tanks, radars and air defense systems, with the tanks failing post-delivery trials and artillery pieces encountering faults in their rammer assembly and breech lock.

Low-grade and unreliable Chinese weaponry has compelled Pakistan to maintain its longstanding defense ties with the US. During the Cold War, Pakistan’s need to counter India and its alignment with the Soviet Union were the main drivers of the US-Pakistan defense relationship.

However, the US suspended arms sales to Pakistan in the 1990s due to nuclear proliferation concerns, and only slightly changed the policy due to counterterrorism cooperation gaining traction after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Now, the US may aim to revive its relatively dormant defense relationship with Pakistan to counter China’s rising influence in South Asia and use Pakistan as a bargaining chip to keep India in line with US interests, including vis-à-vis Russia and the war in Ukraine. 

This September, the US approved a US$450 million upgrade package for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, an apparent reversal of its longstanding ban on arms sales to the country. The upgrade package includes contractor engineering, technical assistance and logistics services for follow-on support.

The US government has also said that Pakistan’s F-16 fleet will receive engine and hardware modifications and support, classified and unclassified software, and other software support.

The upgrade package, however, does not include new capabilities, weapons or munitions. Instead, it aims to improve Pakistan’s counterterrorism capabilities by upgrading its air-to-ground abilities.

A Pakistani F-16 in flight. Photo: Wikipedia

Despite these claims, India has responded strongly to the US move to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16s. While India likely doesn’t believe that refurbishing Pakistan’s old F-16s alone will significantly shift their military balance of power, India will remain the primary target of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, The Times of India reports this September.

The US decision to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16s may be an underhanded move to signal its displeasure with India for its continued purchases of Russian oil during the ongoing Ukraine war.

This month, The Hindu reported that Russia had become India’s top oil supplier, which now makes up 22% of India’s energy imports, up from only 0.2% in March 2022. India has boosted its imports of Russian oil from 68,600 barrels per day (BPD) in March, to 835,556 BPD in October.

Yet Pakistan cannot reliably count on the US to keep supplying it with weapons to keep India in line, as India is a member of the US-led Quad alliance, which brings together the US, Japan, Australia and India to counter China’s growing Indo-Pacific power and influence.