Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, Beijing | Fri, 05/20/2011 4:34 PM | World
China has agreed to provide Pakistan with 50 additional fighter jets in a deal clinched during Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s trip to Beijing, a Pakistani air force official said Friday.
Gilani was wrapping up four-day visit that highlighted Pakistan’s warm ties with China at a time of heightened tensions with Washington over the killing of Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town by American special forces.
Pakistan is seen as eager to show a demanding Washington that it has a strong diplomatic alternative in uncritical ally China.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the Pakistani air force official confirmed the deal to provide the JF-17 Thunder jets, a single-engine multirole fighter developed in cooperation between China and Pakistan. He offered no details on cost or other terms of the agreement.
Known as the FC-1 Xiaolong in China, defense experts say the planes are being offered for export at the relatively low price of about $15 million, making it a cost-efficient replacement for aging workhorses such as the MiG-21 and Northrop F-5 Tiger.
Pakistan has already inducted an initial squadron 14 of the planes into its air force, using some of them alongside U.S.-made F-16s to bomb insurgent strongholds in South Waziristan in 2009. The air force has long been expected to procure more of the planes, including future models with more advanced radars and more powerful engines.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it had no information about the agreement and calls to the Defense Ministry rang unanswered.
Defense cooperation is a major aspect of what Pakistan and China routinely refer to as their “all-weather friendship,” a term Islamabad accentuates to flag what it considers the fickle nature of Washington’s affection.
Following bin Laden’s killing, Beijing offered reassurance and praise for Pakistan’s efforts in the fight against global terrorism in stark contrast to withering criticism from Washington over the terror mastermind’s ability to live seemingly undetected in a city that is home to numerous Pakistani military installations.
China and Pakistan also share a mutual distrust of India, whose forces clashed with China in a brief but bloody 1962 border war. Pakistan and India have battled against each other three times since independence from Britain in 1947, including in a 1999 conflict that brought the nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of all-out war.
During his visit, due to end Friday, Gilani has also met with top Chinese leaders and overseen the signing of three agreements on economic and tehnology cooperation, banking and mining. The visit was planned long in advance as part of commemorations of 60 years of China-Pakistan diplomatic ties.
Along with its friendship, China provides Pakistan with aid and investment, while Pakistan offers Beijing diplomatic backing, including in the Unite Nations and among Islamic nations who might otherwise criticize China’s repressive policies toward its Muslim Uighur minority.
While both countries have troubled relations with the U.S., it isn’t clear yet whether warmer ties between them will diminish the importance of their links to Washington.
Pakstan is furious that it was not informed in advance of the May 1 raid that took out bin Laden. Meanwhile, some U.S. lawmakers are calling for a review of the billions in American aid to Pakistan amid suspicions that elements of its security forces protected bin Laden.
“I think Gilani hopes that by cozyingup to Beijing, Islamabad can hedge its bets both vis-a-vis Washington to take it seriously and vis-a-vis New Delhi as a big power supporter against India,” said analyst Hugh White, a former Australian Defense Department chief.