Sino-Pak Defense Cooperation – Analysis


Pakistan’s relations with China remain a cornerstone of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy. Arms deals act as a mutual bridge of cooperation between both states. Pakistan is the largest recipient of Chinese weaponry in the world. These arms deals are proving their worth in Sino-Pak bilateral relations and keeping Pakistani armed forces up-to-date. 

Former Pakistani president Gen Pervez Musharraf once called China their “time-tested all-weather friend”.

Historical Background

Sino-Pak bilateral relations were established in 1951. At that time, Pakistan was the very first state from the Muslim world to recognize China. During the 1950s, the Pakistani military was reorganized and armed with American weaponry. Pakistan Air force received F-86 Sebres, B-57 Bombers, F-104 starfighters, and C-130 Hercules from the United States of America. Both the Pakistani Army and Navy were also equipped with American weapons. Till the 1965 Indo-Pak war, American systems were fulfilling Pakistani needs. 

Sino-Pak defense cooperation was started in 1964 when Pakistan signed a contract with Chinese authorities for the procurement of twenty-five (25) Type-501B Fire control radars. After the 1965 Indo-Pak war, the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan and thus Pakistan was pressurized to buy defense products from other states. At that time, Sino-Pak defense cooperation gained momentum. From 1965 to 1970, China signed 7 arms deals with Pakistan and supplied multiple weapon systems. 

The most prominent factor of defense cooperation between Pakistan and China is the transfer of technology (TOT). We have many examples in this regard such as Type-22p frigates, JF-17 thunder, Azmat class fast attack crafts and Hangor-class submarines. Although, the United States never supplied weapons with TOT agreements. 

China also helped Pakistan in the establishment of many state-run defense factories such as Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC Kamra) and Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT).

Defense Cooperation

1. JF-17 Thunder: 

JF-17 is a multi-role, 4th generation fighter aircraft co-produced by Pakistan and China. JF-17 made its maiden flight in 2003 and 1st JF-17 aircraft was inducted into Pakistan Air Force in 2007. Currently, 130 JF-17s are active in service with Pakistan Air Force. To-date, 3 variants of JF-17 are produced including single seat JF-17 “Block-1”, JF-17 “Block-2” and twin seat JF-17 “B”. 

Twin-seat JF-17 B was developed for training purposes and dedicated to Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) and Destruction of Enemy Air Defense (DEAD) operations. Thus JF-17 B would also be a multi-role aircraft.  

According to initial details, 42% of aircraft were made in Pakistan while 58% were in China. JF-17s are also in service with militaries of Myanmar and Nigeria. JF-17 Thunder proved its worth during the post-Pulwama crisis and JF-17 Thunder dropped bombs in India-occupied territory very successfully. 

Now, Pakistan and China are working on block III of JF-17 Thunder. Integration of PL-15 Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Air-to-Air missile on JF-17 Block-III will change the dynamic of aerial warfare in South Asia. PL-15 will provide dominance to Pakistan Air Force in terms of air superiority. JF-17 Block-III will be the first (1st) in the Pakistani fleet to be equipped with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. 

2. Air Defense System: 

Pakistan inducted LY-80 air defense system in 2017. LY-80 is the export version of the Chinese HQ-16 air defense system. LY-80 can detect and destroy enemy aerial threats within a range of 70 kilometers. It provides air defense against a wide range of aerial threats such as missiles, aircraft, helicopters, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). This system is operational in service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and many other countries including Pakistan. Pakistani type-54A/P frigates are equipped with a naval version of LY-80 SAMs. 

In past, Pakistan co-produced Anza MANPADS with China. Anza is based on the Chinese QW-2 Man-portable air-defense system (MANPAD). Pakistan also acquired FM-90 for Pakistan Army and FM-90N for Pakistan Navy. FM-90N is currently deployed on type-22P frigates. This system has a maximum range of 30 kilometers.

3. Type-54A/P Frigates: 

Type-54 A/P is a multi-mission frigate developed by China. Initially, Pakistan signed a contract for the procurement of 2 ships in 2017. Later, the Pakistan navy signed the contract for 2 more ships. These ships will be equipped with HHQ-16 missiles for anti-air roles. The first was handed over to Pakistan Navy in 2021. These ships will be a great addition to Pakistan Navy.

4. Hangor-class submarines: 

In 2015, Pakistan Navy signed a contract with Pakistan for the procurement of eight (8) Type-39B Hangor class submarines with China. These submarines are the advanced version of type-39A Yuan class submarines and are active in service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). These submarines will be equipped with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) which enhances the endurance of submarines in the sea. These submarines will be equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and armed with lethal torpedoes and anti-ship missiles. Currently, Pakistan Navy is operating two (2) type-70 and three type-90B submarines and all are French-designed submarines manufactured in France and Pakistan. Thus, Hangor-class submarines will be the first Chinese-origin submarines in the Pakistan’s submarine fleet. 

5. Armored Corps: 

Main battle tanks fleet of Pakistan Army is mainly consists up of Chinese origin tanks. Very first Chinese tank acquired tank was Type-59. After 1965 Indo-Pak war, these tanks were handed over to Pakistan Army. Currently Pakistan Army is operating following type of Chinese tanks: 

Al-Khalid (MBT-2000):

Al-Khalid (MBT-2000) is considered as the backbone of Pakistan Army armored corps. Al-Khalid was co-developed by Pakistan and China. Currently, Pakistan Army is operating 300 al-Khalid tanks and now producing advanced variant of Al-Khalid, which is known as Al-Khalid-1. Al-Khalid is considered as the counterpart of Indian Arjun, T-72 and T-90 tanks. 

Type-85-II AP: 

Type-85 II AP is a second generation Main Battle Tank (MBT) being produced by NARINCO. It was co-produced at Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) under ToT between Pakistan and China

VT-4 (MBT-3000):

VT-4 is most advanced main battle tank in Pakistani inventory. VT-4 is a 3rd generation main battle tank being produced by Chinese company NARINCO. This tank is armed with 125mm smoothbore gun and a machine gun as secondary weapon. Initially, Pakistan Army has ordered three hundred (300) copies of this tank and first batch was received by Pakistan Army in the late 2020s.  

6. Pakistan Air Force: 

Pakistan Air Force is the eleventh largest air force in the world and now mainly consists of Chinese-origin aircraft such as JF-17, F-7 P, F-7 PG, and K-8 Karakorum aircraft. Pakistan is also the 1st customer of Chinese ZDK-03 AWACS aircraft. This aircraft is based on the Chinese Y-8 transport aircraft. 

The First Sino-Pak arms deal was signed in the field of aerospace in 1965. After the Indo-Pak war, the US stopped military supplies to Pakistan. At that time, China aided Pakistan and supplied seventy-two (72) F-6 fighter aircraft considered the Chinese copy of Russian MiG-19s. Then after the 1971 Indo-Pak war, China supplied one hundred and five (105) F-6 aircraft and china helped Pakistan to establish an F-6 overhaul factory at Kamra, Pakistan.  In the 1970s, China provided three types of aircraft including FT-5, F-6, and FT-6. FT-6 is the trainer variant of the F-6 aircraft which was later retired in 2002 from PAF service. 

In the 1980s, Pakistan received A-5III and F-7P fighter aircraft from china. A-5III retired from PAF service in 2012 but F-7P is still serving Pakistan Air Force. 

Pakistan Air Force and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) are conducting a bilateral exercise named Shaheen since 2011. These exercises are held every after two (2) years. These bilateral exercises paved the way for both air forces to learn from each other experiences. Pakistan Air Force is operating the same type of armament on the JF-17 Thunder, which China is operating on her main aircraft such as the J-10, J-11, and J-16. Thus these exercises are perfect example of cooperation between China and Pakistan.

7. Type-22P frigates: 

In 2005, Pakistan Navy signed a 750 million deal for the co-production for four (4) type-22P frigates. Currently, all four ships are operational in Pakistan Navy. These ships are armed with C-802 anti-ship missiles designed to destroy enemy ships at a maximum range of 185 kilometers. Type-22P is a multi-purpose frigate capable of undergoing various types of missions such as Anti-surface, anti-air and anti-piracy. 

8. Space Exploration: 

China is also assisting Pakistan in the field of space exploration. Pakistan’s first-ever satellite “Badar-1” was launched with Chinese assistance in 1992. “Babar-1” was launched from a Chinese launch station with the help of a Chinese rocket. In the twenty-first century, satellites and space programs are very important for any state.  Today, Navigational systems have many applications either for military or civil peaceful purposes. With Chinese cooperation, Pakistan is capable to develop satellite or navigational systems. According to Vision 2040, Pakistan aims to design and launch satellites into space and China is again helping Pakistan. In 2018, two indigenous satellites were launched with the help of a Chinese rocket. Those satellites are currently in operational status. These satellites were named “Pakistan’s Remote Sensing Satellite-1 (PRSS-1)” and “Pakistan’s Technology Evolution Satellite-1A”.    

9. Cooperation in Nuclear aspects: 

Sino-Pak cooperation in nuclear-domain started in the 1970s during the tenure of Pakistani Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto. This cooperation gained momentum in later years. China and Pakistan decided to work together on civil nuclear technologies in 1986. Under that agreement, China agreed to provide nuclear power reactors and other nuclear-related products. Technical support was also part of that agreement. That agreement helped Pakistan to learn from the Chinese experience. 

In 1991, China signed an agreement with Pakistan for the manufacturing of a 300 Megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant at Chasma, Punjab. That power reactor is based on the Chinese indigenous designed “Qinshan-1” nuclear power plant. The first power plant became operational in 2000. In 2005, Pakistan announced that it begin constructing 2nd 300 Megawatt (MW) power plant at Chasma. The second nuclear plant became operational in 2011. 

Later, two more power plants, C3 and C4 become operational in 2016 and 2017 respectively. On the other hand, Pakistan and China were also involved in the construction of Karachi-based K-2 and K-3 nuclear power plants and now both are operational and contributing to the energy supplies to Pakistan. Interestingly, K-1 was constructed by Canada but remaining all nuclear power plants were constructed by Pakistan and China. China is also a prominent supporter of Pakistan’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Currently, forty-eight (48) states have membership in NSG.   

Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) aims to generate 8000 Megawatt (MW) from nuclear energy by 2030. To achieve this goal, Pakistan and China agreed to construct another nuclear power plant, C-5 in Chasma.


China and Pakistan are “iron brothers,” and numerous historical episodes have demonstrated this. China consistently showed her worth, from providing military support in the war of 1965 to cooperating in the nuclear program. China is a growing force in the modern period, challenging American hegemony in the world. China once more demonstrated its significance to Pakistan in the COVID crisis. In addition to providing Sino Pharm and Sinovac to Pakistan, China assisted in the establishment of a manufacturing facility in Islamabad. 

The increasing influence of India and strong Indian ties with the United States of America, Japan, France, and Israel forced Pakistan and China to come closer to each other. China-Pakistan military relationship has always been based on a mutual relationship. The ties which grew in the backdrop of regional issues have evolved into a long-term partnership. This partnership has not only built the capacity of Pakistan’s armed forces but also given it a push to the indigenization of defense products such as JF-17. However, Sino-Pak relation has remained military but in recent years it jays evolved in a broader way. The signing of CPEC has given new impetus to already building a relationship.

Umair Aslam is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of an Islamabad-based defense publication, Global Defense Insight. He has worked as a defense journalist reporting on military modernization programs, nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, and the South Asian Arms race. 

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