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Musharraf Visits China: Current Issues In Pakistan-China Relations

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on February 25th, 2006

On the eve of President George W. Bush’s visit to India, Afghanistan and Pakistan the first week of March, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf visited China from February 19 to 24. While public reports of his visit reveal little of its substance, it can be assumed that Musharraf and Chinese leaders addressed a range of strategic, nuclear, military, as well as economic concerns. However, with both Washington and Beijing in a galloping competition to court Delhi’s strategic alignment, Islamabad is anxious as well to seek assurances and added benefits from both its main strategic partners. At the same time, Beijing and Washington, from differing perspectives, want Pakistan’s leadership to crack down on terrorist groups that it is often unwilling to oppose.

Prior to President Musharraf’s visit some effort was made to highlight that 2006 marks the 55th year of formal China-Pakistan relations. In the post Cold War era, especially following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is China which has emerged as Pakistan’s most important strategic guarantor vis-a-via its much larger and longstanding rival India. China was the source of initial design information for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, assisted the building of its nuclear technology complex, and has enabled Pakistan to build three types of solid-fuel ballistic missiles which can deliver nuclear weapons. China is Pakistan’s the most important source of modern conventional weaponry as well as a key source of trade and investment. And for China, a nuclear missile armed Pakistan stokes a continued over-arching strategic preoccupation in Delhi with its traditional rival, which diverts Delhi as Beijing builds relationships of future strategic importance in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal and Iran, which all serve to surround India.

Following the Al-Qaeda led attacks of 9/11/01 and the subsequent U.S.-led War on Terror, President Bush sought to accelerate a new strategic alignment with India, with special stress on counter-terrorism and increased military cooperation as a hedge against a potentially more dangerous China. U.S. officials have openly stated their intention "to help India become a major world power in the 21st century."[1] At the same time Bush pursued a more vigorous engagement with Pakistan, which was needed as a staging point for operations to defeat the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. Since then the Bush Administration has ended U.S. sanctions imposed after Pakistan’s 1997 nuclear tests (as it has done with India), committed to provide over $3 billion in economic and military aid from 2003 to 2007, and has resumed the sale of weaponry embargoed in 1990 like advanced Lockheed-Martin F-16 jet fighters and Lockheed-Martin P-3 anti-submarine patrol aircraft. Following Pakistan’s devastating October 8, 2005 earthquake the U.S. committed to providing $200 million in emergency assistance. Washington hopes that by promoting democracy in Pakistan that it can strengthen a greater regional democratic trend.

Both China and Russia reacted with alarm to the rapid U.S. move into Central Asia. Despite the seeming contradiction of having made Pakistan a nuclear missile power, China has sought to revive relations with India by stressing trade and investment and appearing to allow concessions on long-standing border disputes. China also led the formation of the Shanghai-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June 2001, originally comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but expanded in 2005 to include India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia as "observers." As largescale China-Russia military exercises were held in China in August 2005, it is reasonable to consider that China hopes to lead the SCO into becoming a military-economic entente powerful enough to sway India away from the U.S orbit.

It is against this backdrop that China might be justified in viewing its role as Pakistan’s strategic nuclear guarantor as an increasing liability. This should certainly worry Islamabad, which does not have the market, economic dynamism or geostrategic potential India can offer China. Nevertheless, while the prospects are low for a dramatic improvement in China-India relations that would diminish Chinese strategic support for Pakistan, Islamabad is keen to preserve and strengthen its unique strategic relationship with Beijing. Initial reviews of Musharraf’s visit indicate that China will sustain that steadfast strategic support.

Allied Rhetoric

Upon their meeting on February 20, Chinese President Hu Jintao called Musharraf an "old friend of the Chinese people" and praised him for making "an important contribution to the development of our relations". But in an even stronger statement, Pakistan’s Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad told a Chinese TV interviewer that Pakistan will stand beside China if the United States ever tries to "besige" it.[2] While there has not yet been any official Pakistani elaboration on this statement, at face value it appears to constitute one important official’s acknowledgement of Chinese government fear of U.S. appeals for democratic reform in China. But is also may signify a preference for authoritarian China over the democratic United States. For China such a statement would be comforting on the eve of President Bush’s visit to Islamabad. For Washington, this statement serves as a reminder that as it seeks to strengthen democratic forces in Pakistan, it must consider that many Pakistani anti-democrats are allied with China.

While Pakistan is receiving generous U.S. aid, it is also receiving generous Chinese economic assistance. China is involved in many key infrastructure projects in Pakistan, to include upgrading the Karakorum Highway and building a new deep-water port in the coastal town of Gwadar. The later will feature railroad and possibly pipeline linkages that will extend into China’s western provinces, giving China an additional avenue for Persian Gulf petroleum transport that will lessen its current dependence on Indian Ocean sea lanes it cannot yet ensure. However, when the Chinese Navy becomes larger and features aircraft carriers, it should not be surprising that they find welcome facilities in Gwadar.

Full SCO Membership: Dilemma For China

One important request that Musharraf was not afraid to publicly telegraph before going to Beijing was that of having Pakistan elevated to the level of "full member" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Hoping to prove that the SCO is a consensus organization, SCO Secretary General Zhang Deguang said, "We will relay Pakistan’s hope to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to all members of the group."[3] But it is instructive that Pakistan chose to convey its request to China. Musharraf is very likely putting China on the spot to demonstrate that Pakistan retains greater Chinese favor than India. This is timely as Indian sources note that later this summer, Russia and China hope to include Indian military forces in a counter-terrorism exercise under the auspices of the SCO—that will not include Pakistan. While China has conducted anti-terror exercises with Pakistan, the unlikely inclusion of Pakistani forces in this summer exercise, plus any delay in advancing Pakistan’s full membership before that of India, will be viewed in Islamabad as a negative tilt. And likewise, China’s decision to allow Pakistan to be elevated before India will likely increase the perception in Delhi that the SCO is but a budding Anti-NATO alliance and a future threat. This would then defeat both Russia’s and China’s desire that the SCO become more attractive power-center to Delhi, at least to the point of moderating its deepening cooperation with Washington.

Nuclear Upgrade?

China may also be considering upgrading Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. China is already the widely acknowledged source of Pakistan’s initial nuclear weapon design, the major partner in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons complex, the major source of Pakistan’s short and medium range solid fuel missile technology[4], and the likely partner in the development of Pakistan’s Land Attack Cruise Missile tested in 2005.[5] Through the network led by Pakistan’s former chief nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, Pakistan sold Chinese nuclear weapons plans to Libya.[6] Then last January, press reports noted the International Atomic Energy Agency had disclosed that Iran had obtained data needed to fabricate the enriched uranium "pit" necessary to make a nuclear weapon from "the same network [that] provided Libya with drawings of a crude nuclear bomb."[7] It is thus logical to conclude that the A.Q. Khan network also sold China’s nuclear weapon plans to Iran..

In January The Financial Times reported that China and Pakistan are negotiating the purchase of 6 to 8 new Chinese nuclear power reactors, in addition to the one Chinese-built nuclear power reactor now at Chasma in the Punjab Province.[8] Following the October earthquake there were reports that nuclear-related facilities had been damaged, reports that were quickly denied by Pakistan.[9] Nevertheless, there have been repeated Indian press reports that China has offered to upgrade Pakistan’s nuclear weapon and nuclear storage facilities.[10] These reports, which have not been confirmed in the U.S. or Western media, also note that Washington has protested this Chinese intention.

Military Sales

China has proven to be a reliable supplier of conventional military equipment for Pakistan, selling F-7 fighters, a version of the T-96 main battle tank, and subsidizing the future construction of four frigates for the Pakistan Navy. Pakistan’s Navy is also considering the future purchase of Chinese conventional submarines.[11] In contrast, the U.S. embargoed F-16 fighters purchased by Pakistan in 1990 and has just resumed arms sales. Pakistan recently took delivery of two of the formerly embargoed F-16A fighters and may take delivery of another 10 older F-16s from the U.S. in 2006.[12] Following the October 2005 earthquake Musharraf delayed plans to buy up to 75 new F-16s and may instead pursue a mix of 35 to 50 new and used F-16s.[13] India has protested U.S. plans to sell new F-16s to Pakistan.

On February 23 President Musharraf took a day to visit Sichuan Province and the Chengdu Aircraft Company, where he was photographed in the cockpit of a new FC-1 fighter, called the JF-17 "Thunder" in Pakistan service.[14] In 1999 Pakistan and China agreed to co-develop and co-produce Chengdu’s FC-1 lightweight fighter, which had originally started in the late 1980s as a co-development of the J-7 fighter with the former U.S. Grumman Corporation. The FC-1 has been in flight testing since 2003, is now undergoing design refinements and is expected to begin production within a year, and enter Pakistan Air Force service by 2009.[15] Pakistan has a stated requirement for 150 and most will be co-produced in Pakistan. With an expected cost of less than $20 million each, the FC-1 is a modern multi-role fighter that can fire advanced self-guided medium range air-to-air missile and deliver precision guided air-to-ground weapons, which the U.S. F-16 can do too with somewhat better performance, but at about double the price. While chances are good the FC-1 will be purchased by the Chinese military, that has not materialized, but with Pakistan’s help, Chengdu now has a modern fighter that will soon compete with U.S., Russian and European fighters in the low-price market.

Pakistan is also considering the purchase of the more capable Chengdu J-10. Depending on the availability of the U.S. F-16, Pakistan’s Air Force Commander Air Marshal Kaleem Sadat has noted that Chengdu’s more capable J-10 is also an option for Pakistan. In September 2004 he noted that Pakistani pilots were to test the J-10 later that year.[16] The J-10 is just now entering Chinese Air Force regiments and offers performance and weapons capabilities that are more comparable to modern variants of the F-16. Soon upgraded versions will feature a thrust-vectored engine[17] and possibly new electronics[18], enhancing the maneuverability of this already quite agile canard fighter. If as expected, China meets with success in building its indigenous WS-10A turbofan engine, Pakistan may view a thrust-vectored engined J-10 as its match for India’s thrust-vectored engined Sukhoi Su-30MKI. So even if Pakistan does purchase more F-16s that does not rule out a future J-10 purchase.


The increasing radicalization of Islam in Pakistan combined with the growing weakness the Pakistani government faces in confronting real terrorist organizations, poses a threat to China’s relations with Pakistan as it does with the United States. Overshadowing Musharraf’s visit to China was the February 15 killing of three Chinese engineers by rebels in Balochistan[19], the third such attack against Chinese nationals in Pakistan since May 2004. In that attack, a bomb killed three Chinese engineers working on the large Chinese-Pakistani Gwadar port construction, and then later that October, two Chinese were kidnapped, with one later being rescued while one died during the rescue attempt. In response to China’s increasing role in supporting the Pakistani government, Baloci rebels have decided to target Chinese nationals in Balochistan. Deeply embarrassing for Pakistan, these deaths, including the latest, featured formal Pakistan military ceremony and transport of the deceased to China, who were then received in a military-like ceremony and extensive Chinese media coverage. While Pakistani authorities responded the day after this latest attack by rounding up 55 suspects[20], it fell to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to admonish, "I hope Pakistan will adopt measures to guarantee the personal safety and property of Chinese in Pakistan."[21]

[1] Statement made by an unnamed State Department official during a March 25, 2005 press briefing.

[2] “Pakistan Will Stand By China Against U.S. Siege, Says Rashid,” Daily Times, February 23, 2006,

[3] “Religious bias a threat to world peace: Musharraf,” Daily Times, February 22, 2006,\02\22\story_22-2-2006_pg1_1

[4] See author, Report On the International Defense Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS)
 September 14-17, 2004, Karachi, Pakistan, International Assessment and Strategy Center, October 29, 2004.

[5] Robert Hewson, Andrew Koch, and Farhan Bokhari, “Pakistan tests cruise missile,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, August 12, 2005.

[6] Joby Warrick and Peter Slevin, “Libyan Arms Designs Traced Back to China, Pakistanis Resold Chinese-Provided Plans,” The Washington Post, February 15, 2004, Page A1.

[7] George Jahn and Ali Akbar Dareini, “Iran Said To Have Nuclear Warhead Plans,” Associated Press, January 31, 2006.

[8] Pak negotiates to buy Chinese N-reactors,” Press Trust of India, January 3, 2006.

[9] “Pakistan Denies India Army Report,” BBC, October 13, 2005,

[10] “CIA tabs new China-Pak nuke link,” NEWSInsight, January 6, 2006.

[11] Press Conference, IDEAS, Karachi, Pakistan, September 2004.

[12] Fahran Bokhari, “US approves initial transfer of two F-16s to Pakistan,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, August 11, 2005.

[13] Fahran Bokhari, “Pakistan test fires Hatf 2 missile,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, March 1, 2006.

[14] Reported on “,” as a J-10, it is actually a FC-1 fighter, February 24, 2006,; also see “ Musharraf inspects JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft production,”

[15] Robert Hewson, “Sino-Pakistani fighter improved,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, December 7, 2005.

[16] Interview, IDEAS, Karachi, Pakistan, September 2004.

[17] Interview, Moscow Airshow, August 2005.

[18] Henry Ivanov, “China working on “Super-10” advanced fighter,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, January 11, 2006.

[19] “3 Chinese engineers, driver killed,” Daily Times, February 16, 2006,\02\16\story_16-2-2006_pg1_4

[20] “55 held for Chinese’s murders,” Daily Times, February 17, 2006,\02\17\story_17-2-2006_pg1_5

[21] “Religious bias a threat to world peace: Musharraf,” Daily Times, February 22, 2006,\02\22\story_22-2-2006_pg1_1

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