By MARIA ABI-HABIB
Pakistan already builds Chinese-designed JF-17 fighter jets, like this one. A new generation of fighters is planned. (Reuters)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — When President Donald J. Trump started 2018 by suspending billions of dollars of security aid to Pakistan, one theory was that it would scare the Pakistanis into cooperating with its American allies.
The reality was that Pakistan already had a replacement sponsor lined up.
Just two weeks later, the Pakistani Air Force and Chinese officials were putting the final touches on a secret proposal to expand Pakistan’s building of Chinese military jets, weaponry and other hardware. The confidential plan, reviewed by The New York Times, would also deepen the cooperation between China and Pakistan in space, a frontier the Pentagon recently said Beijing was trying to militarize after decades of playing catch-up.
All those military projects were designated as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion chain of infrastructure development programs stretching across some 70 countries, built and financed by Beijing.
Chinese officials have said the Belt and Road is purely an economic project with peaceful intent. But with its plan for Pakistan, China is for the first time explicitly tying a Belt and Road proposal to its military ambitions — and confirming the concerns of a host of nations who suspect the infrastructure initiative is really about helping China project armed might.
As China’s strategically located and nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan has been the leading example of how the Chinese projects are being used to give Beijing both favor and leverage among its clients.
Pakistan has been the program’s flagship site, with some $62 billion in projects planned in the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China has lent more money to Pakistan at a time of economic desperation there, binding the two countries ever closer.
Even before the revelation of the new Chinese-Pakistani military cooperation, some of China’s biggest projects in Pakistan had clear strategic implications.
A Chinese-built seaport and special economic zone in the Pakistani town of Gwadar is rooted in trade, giving China a quicker route to the Arabian Sea. But it also gives Beijing a strategic card to play against India and America if tensions worsen to the point of naval blockades as the two powers confront each other at sea.
A less scrutinized aspect of Belt and Road is the central role Pakistan plays in China’s Beidou satellite navigation system. Pakistan is the only other country granted access to the system’s military service, allowing more precise guidance for missiles, ships and aircraft.
The cooperation is meant to be a blueprint for Beidou’s expansion to other Belt and Road nations, however, ostensibly ending its clients’ reliance on the American military-run GPS network that Chinese officials fear is monitored and manipulated by the United States.
In Pakistan, China has found an amenable ally with much to recommend it: shared borders and a long history of cooperation; a hedge in South Asia against India; a large market for arms sales and trade; a wealth of natural resources.
When China inaugurated Belt and Road in 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s new government in Pakistan saw it as the answer for a host of problems. Foreign investment in Pakistan was scant, driven away by terrorist attacks and the country’s corruption.
In October, the country’s central bank revealed an overall debt and liability burden of about $215 billion, with $95 billion externally held. With nearly half of the projects completed, Pakistan currently owes China $23 billion. But the country stands to owe $62 billion to China under the plan for Belt and Road’s expansion there.
According to the proposal drawn up by Pakistan and China at the start of the year, a special economic zone would be created in Pakistan to produce new fighter jets. Navigation systems, radar systems and onboard weapons would be built at factories in Pakistan.
The proposal would expand China and Pakistan’s cooperation on the JF-17 fighter jet, assembled at Pakistan’s military-run Kamra Aeronautical Complex in Punjab Province. The Chinese-designed jets have given Pakistan an alternative to the American-built F-16 fighters that have become more difficult to obtain as Islamabad’s relationship with Washington frays.
For years, some of the most important military coordination between China and Pakistan has been going on in space. Just months before Beijing unveiled the Belt and Road project in 2013, it signed an agreement with Pakistan to build a network of satellite stations inside Pakistan to establish the Beidou Navigation System as an alternative to the American GPS network. Beidou quickly became a core component of Belt and Road.