Dr. Simbal Khan
While global attention has been focused on the geo-economic ramifications of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, recent developments in China-Pakistan military relations suggest certain shifts are under way within the regional strategic stability regime in South Asia.
In a statement on March 14, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announced that the Institute of Optics and Electronics had sold Pakistan a powerful tracking system that could speed up the Pakistani military’s development of multi-warhead missiles. In an unprecedented move, Chinese authorities declassified this information about the deal and in a statement on the CAS website, said China was the first country to export such sensitive equipment to Pakistan. International observers have long believed that Beijing is supporting Islamabad’s missile development program.
But solid evidence has been difficult to come by in the public domain, making the CAS statement a rarity. The question is why did the Chinese decide to make this public announcement this time around?
China’s support to Pakistan’s nuclear program and missile technology transfers has long been seen as part of efforts to maintain regional strategic stability between the two nuclear arch rivals, India and Pakistan. While India enjoys conventional military superiority against the much smaller Pakistan military infrastructure, Pakistan has been working to develop strategic and tactical nuclear response capabilities to counter the conventional military threat from India.
While India’s single-warhead missiles are bigger and cover longer distances, Pakistan has focused its efforts on developing multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), a type of missile carrying several nuclear warheads that can be directed toward different targets. The US Defense Intelligence Agency also officially confirmed in March 2018 that Pakistan conducted the first test launch of its nuclear-capable Ababeel missile in January 2017, demonstrating South Asia’s first MIRV payload. China’s support to Pakistan’s nuclear and missile program has been vital in helping Pakistan to achieve a credible defensive nuclear doctrine. Instead of indulging in a costly conventional arms race, Pakistan has revamped its nuclear doctrine and has adopted the “full-spectrum deterrence” posture in 2013.
In case of war, this would allow Pakistan to utilize battlefield nuclear weapons or tactical nuclear weapons, checking the advance of India’s larger conventional attack formations.
This recent public acknowledgement by CAS stating that China is supporting Pakistan’s rapidly developing missile program has more to do with growing China-India bilateral tensions. The announcement has come only two months after India tested its most advanced nuclear-ready intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range long enough to hit Beijing or Shanghai. India’s Jan. 18 test of its Agni-V ICBM, with a range of more than 5,000km (3,100 miles), is seen as a message that the South Asian giant can deploy a credible nuclear deterrent against China.
The Indian ICBM tests also followed the bitter military standoff between China and India in 2017 at Doklam, territory claimed by China and Bhutan, which raised tensions between the two new rising great powers, China and India. Many observers may see this as China’s acknowledgement of its transfer of advanced missile technology to Pakistan as part of a more aggressive strategic signaling posture that China is adopting at global level.
China’s new signaling posture was also on display during the recent visit of its new Defense Minister, General Wei Fenghe, to Russia. Gen. Fenghe, during his first trip abroad, made unprecedented public statements signaling to the US about the increasingly close military ties between Moscow and Beijing.
Moscow and Beijing have forged what they described as a “strategic partnership,” expressing their shared opposition to the “unipolar” world – the term they used to describe perceived US global domination. As part of their growing military cooperation, Moscow and Beijing have conducted joint military exercises including in the South China Sea and last summer’s joint navy drills in the Baltics.
The Baltic exercise marked the first time that China had flexed its military muscle in a region where tensions between Russia and NATO have escalated after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. In December 2017, the Russian and Chinese militaries held missile defense drills intended to practice a joint response to missile threats from other countries. As China’s mega project BRI (Belt Road initiative) and its regional tributary CPEC take on tangible shape, the changing geo-economic stakes are translating into strategic-level military calculations. Shared economic agendas, which have bound regional states with China through BRI, may in certain instances translate into military alliances. China and Pakistan have long-enduring military ties.
China’s military support to Pakistan, however, has been so far focused on maintaining regional strategic stability and responding to its security concerns vis-a-vis the vastly powerful India and its growing military strength. The growing US-Indian strategic relations and growing Indian access to advanced military technology is changing China’s strategic calculations.
With diminishing US-Pakistan military relations and changing regional security trends, China-Pakistan military cooperation, if not already, may soon be elevated to the strategic level.
(Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South-Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South-Central Asia and the geopolitics of border spaces. She is also a non-resident fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies Islamabad. Twitter: @simbalkh)
Dr. Simbal Khan