The noticeable changes in China’s foreign policy in recent months, particularly the conciliatory tone, are attributable to a large extent directly to pressure exerted on Beijing by the “trade war” initiated by the US. Conscious of the West’s efforts to retard its growth and restrict its access to hi-tech supply chains, Beijing has adopted an overtly benign tone with its neighbours.
These are however, cosmetic tactical measures and China’s ambition of developing “a kind of military force system” has not changed. The steady development of China-Pakistan relations in India’s immediate neighbourhood provides ample evidence.
China-Pakistan relations are moving from an “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership” to one where Beijing is increasingly integrating Pakistan into its military system to fulfil global ambitions. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is an important part of this, but more important is the military role envisioned by China. There are clear indicators that China is not only strengthening Pakistan to restrict India’s growth by keeping it under direct military pressure, but that it plans to use Pakistan as the outpost for its extended global maritime reach.
Sino-Pakistan military cooperation presently covers the entire gamut of military activity. China’s military institutions train Pakistani military personnel and carry out joint military and counter-terrorism exercises. China has also been selling military hardware, including nuclear weapons technology, warships, aircraft and missiles to Pakistan and has recently begun helping Pakistan develop aerospace capability.
The establishment inside Pakistan of satellite stations linked to China’s BeiDou Satellite Navigation System ensures that the avionics, guidance systems etc., of the Pakistan military will be tied in with Chinese systems. Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been promoting synergy between its personnel deployed in the Xinjiang and Tibet Military Regions—both part of the PLA Western Theatre Command, which exercises operational jurisdiction over China’s borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Especially significant, however, are the discussions underway in influential senior Chinese military and Navy circles on the projection of China’s military power. Official Chinese military media reports reveal there is consensus on enhancing “the actual level of deterrence and actual combat capabilities of the PLA”, and that “building a maritime power is an inevitable choice to realise the ‘Chinese Dream’.” They stress that building aircraft carriers must be accelerated and given priority, with Chinese strategists including PLA National Defence University senior Professor Ou Jianping adding that China needs to be aware that its forces are far from where they should be and that a complete system of ocean-going combat forces is far from being built. Therefore, they say “the second priority is to build an ocean power system”. It is in this context that Beijing sees a role for Pakistan as shouldering some of the responsibility.
An official media report separately disclosed that China has planned to carry out a “large-scale upgrade” of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and “sell it to Pakistan to compete with India”! It described Pakistan “as the best destination for it” and said that by then the Liaoning, which was commissioned into the PLAN in September 2012, will have served the Chinese Navy for about 18 years. Gwadar and Karachi are already described by Chinese Navy strategists as a “logistics base” and “PLA Navy (PLAN) base” respectively.
PLA Navy (PLAN) strategists are also emphasising the need for carrier battle formations in the East and South China Seas and have said that at least five to six aircraft carriers are required to meet operational needs. There are now clear indications that China has decided to build five aircraft carriers and launch them by 2025-2030. Two of them will be nuclear-powered. Whether a sixth aircraft carrier will be built is still uncertain but, meanwhile, some strategists are pointing to the huge expense of operating a single aircraft carrier.
In the regional context and notwithstanding claims of the so-called “Wuhan spirit”, China’s official military media is quite candid that Sino-Pakistan military cooperation is aimed at India. It has been explicit, for example, that China has been sending the J-11, J-11B, and Su-30MKK to the “Shaheen” series of air force exercises to “simulate” India’s Su-30MKI and help the Pakistan Air Force assess how much it can rely on its existing combat aircraft and gauge their strengths and weaknesses against India’s Su 30MKI and other aircraft systems.
More pointed was a recent article discussing the latest Shaheen-VII exercise. It described the PLAAF’s decision to send its most advanced fourth-generation J-10C fighter aircraft, for the first time, as reflecting “the major changes in exchanging confidential information and China’s military training”. Stating that the J-10C is a fourth-generation medium fighter with combat capability comparable to the Rafale, it said “an important goal” of sending the J-10C was to “simulate” the Rafale fighters that the Indian Air Force is about to introduce from France.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.