Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Ahmad, Chief of Air Staff Pakistan, concluded his week-long official visit to China in July this year, undertaking high-level military-to-military interaction with Chinese military leadership. This high-level visit has likely raised the prospects for joint Air Force exercises, personnel combat training, joint production of military hardware, and transfer of military technology and equipment to Pakistan by China. The pattern of the highest possible interaction between Air Force commanders of Pakistan and China indicates the strategic convergence and long-term commitment to military-to-military engagement.
CAS Zaheer Ahmad held high-level meetings with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, People Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) commander General Dingqiu, Cheif of Equipment Development Department General Xu, Director General of Military Beauru and Technical Cooperation Major General Fan Jianjun, and representatives of the private defense industry. These high-level military-to-military engagements carry strategic significance for both defense partners amid changing regional security outlook. Pakistan Air Force may harvest valuable dividends out of this particular visit due to its broader scope driven by convergence on issues of regional peace and security.
These high-level meetings between the military leadership of China and Pakistan carry weight in the geostrategic context and have far-reaching consequences.
The foremost is the influence of US-China rivalry in the larger context of the Indo-Pacific region on South Asia. Although the US is making serious efforts of normalization to diplomatically engage China yet it has to attend Chinese security concerns. It reflects China’s willingness to engage on the economy, trade, and diplomatic fronts with the US but, at the same time, it exhibits extreme displeasure over American military alliances in the region.
Since India is a close ally of the US in the region and a recipient of cutting-edge American military technologies, it directly influences the security matrix of Pakistan in retrospect. In hindsight, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu denied the audience to officials of the Biden Administration visiting China this year and refused to restore military-to-military communication with Pentagon. But he received CAS Zaheer Ahmad in Beijing, which can not be ignorred given the current security environment in the Indo-Pacific seaboard, which India is part of. He and General Li mutually agreed with the changing geopolitical landscape and unfolding security situation where both China and Pakistan are required to forge closer and stronger military coordination.
Dynamics of PLAAF and PAF Cooperation
This binds Pakistan and China in a close binary of military-to-military cooperation, especially in the air domain, as commanders of both Air Forces agreed in the meeting. There is a testimony to this claim. When CAS Zaheer Ahmad is meeting with high military command of China, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh threatened to cross the Line of Control to intimidate Pakistan. Given this context, Pakistan Air Force must be combat-ready with sufficient technological prowess and trained combat personnel in testing conditions. Under these circumstances, China stands ready to shoulder Pakistan as Pakistan Air Force remains attentive to the emerging threats and subsequent operational needs for its airworthiness.
Secondly, these meetings is an important precursor to the upcoming Eagle X joint exercise between Pakistan Air Force and People Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). This joint exercise allows both forces to enhance inter-operability, operational synergy, and tactical improvement to face modern challenges and diverse security threats. Since warfare is evolving with technological advancement in military hardware, a higher degree of interoperability depends on compatible military hardware, inter-personnel compatibility at tactical and command levels, and integrated communication networks. Pakistan and China mutually work toward a synergized operationalization of joint forces and enhancing combat acumen by training their forces in a real-time combat environment.
Thirdly, the meetings were important in the backdrop of US-India defense agreements during the visit of PM Nerendra Modi to Washington. Air Marshal Zaheer Ahmad specifically touched upon the subject of transfer of technology, procurement of military hardware, collaborative production and investments in Pakistan in his meetings with General Xu and Major General Fan. The command acknowledged that the bilateral military cooperation enjoys a higher degree of reliability and interdependence, boosting higher performance and capacity buildup of Pakistan Air Force.
Prospects of Future Cooperation
It is pertinent to mention that Air Marshal Zaheer Ahmad called on the Finance Minister of Pakistan, Ishaq Dar, in Islamabad a week before he visited China. All of the meetings of CAS can be read in conjunction to assume new procurement of Chinese military hardware by Pakistan Air Force, but it is premature to conclude the type and category of hardware. Given induction of aircraft carrier and India’s procurement of aerial platforms, especially the naval version of 26 Dassualt Rafales, Pakistan Air Force naturally feels stressed to cover the spectrum of aerial threats and enable formidable air defense especially in the maritime domain.
From the perspective of maritime Air Defense, Pakistan Air Force can learn, tailor-made and emulate Chinese military strategies in South China Sea, a defense parameter armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, laser and jamming equipment supported by close support of advanced fighter jets. Since the challenges for Pakistan in the maritime air domain are mounting, the Pakistan Air Force might be debating the solutions with Chinese counterparts as they face similar challenges in their respective domains.
This can be used as a pretext of the meeting to assume either the delivery of more Chinese-made J-10 Fighter aircraft to Pakistan is planned or expeditious production of JF-17 Block III is being pushed to bridge the capability gap. In either case, Pakistan needs more capable aircraft, 4+ generations, in its fleet to establish a formidable Air defense across the air frontiers, land and sea. Additionally, the transfer of drone technology to Pakistan can be an other matter of interest for CAS Zaheer Ahmad in China.
Currently, China is the primary arms supplier of Pakistan and the major partner in the joint production of major weapon platform, a JF-17 Thunder aircraft being top of the list. Pakistan Air Force values its relationship with China, whereby China intends to deepen and expand its military ties with Pakistan. China stands ready to meet the technological and equipment requirements of the Pakistan Air Force, as the pattern of arms procurement and development suggests during this decade.
This mutual reciprocation is resourceful for both neighbors and strategic partners amid a precipitous decline in India-China relations and, alternatively, Pak-US relations. This provides an opportunity for the Pakistan Air Force to establish indigenous research, development, and production base for aviation technologies in Pakistan with the help of China and move to Transfer-of-Technology and Joint Production models reducing the dependency on off-the-shelf procurement of all weapon platforms.