FOREIGN RELATIONS

Beijing eyes bigger arms exports after Pakistan deal, experts say

Submarine deal with Pakistan will encourage China to expand defence sales overseas, experts say

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 5:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 9:37am

Vows by China and Pakistan to deepen security and defence ties will reinforce Beijing's ambitions to increase its arms exports, which could create unease among some countries in the region, especially India, security experts say.

President Xi Jinping made his first state visit to Pakistan last week and met Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, with the sides agreeing to boost their partnership to "all-weather levels".

The two nations also decided to step up dialogue between their armed forces, and expand cooperation in defence technology and production.

Three weeks before Xi departed for the trip, Sharif approved a US$5 billion deal to buy eight submarines from China, Reuters reported, quoting an unnamed Pakistani government official as saying, but added the deal had not been finalised. It would be China's largest single sale of submarines, experts say.

The deal would likely encourage Beijing to expand arms exports, said Mathieu Duchatel, head of the China and Global Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global military spending and arms sales.

"With progress in its defence industry and strong government support for research and development, China has become a major player in weapons system," Duchatel said. "The success in the deals with Pakistan will make it easier for China to secure markets in the countries in which China has strong defence relationship, as it means that the weapon systems are already tested."

China was the third-largest arms exporter in 2012-13 but has since fallen to fifth place, behind Britain, France, Russia and the United States, according to the institute's research. But it remains the main supplier for Pakistan, delivering half of the country's arms from 2010-14.

Li Jie, a researcher at the PLA Navy's Military Academy, said the submarine deal likely involved the Type 039-class, a diesel-electric vessel that first went into operation in the 1990s. China had sold submarines overseas before, but the deal with Pakistan was the biggest, he said.

"The Type 039-class submarine is equipped with an advanced air-independent propulsion system, which would allow the warship to stay and operate underwater much longer and make it more difficult to be detected by its enemies," Li said.

"The Pakistan Navy will gain a competitive advantage in their underwater fighting capability."

China is pushing for deeper ties with Pakistan amid concerns over Islamabad's ability to maintain security within its own borders. Beijing wants a planned network of roads, railways and energy projects linking Pakistan's deepwater Gwadar port with the Xinjiang region on the mainland.

The corridor would shorten the route for energy imports, bypassing the Strait of Malacca, a bottleneck at risk of blockade in wartime.

Beijing has also expressed concerns about terrorists from Pakistan and Afghanistan entering Xinjiang, and has pledged to help broker talks between political factions in Afghanistan. Pakistan, for its part, is seeking a reliable supplier of advanced weapons amid tensions with India.

"This is a big step forward," said Imtiaz Gul, founder and political analyst for the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "Pakistan does not attract much foreign investment, or much defence and military cooperation from Western countries. Anything that comes Pakistan's way in terms of finance and military hardware helps end Pakistan's international isolation."

But the deal could stoke an already heated arms race in the region. "The proposed sale of eight Type 039 submarines by China to Pakistan is bound to result in India's need to retaliate," said D.S. Rajan, a former director of India's Chennai Centre for China Studies, adding Pakistan would likely equip the submarines with nuclear-tipped missiles.

"India still has no such subs with nuclear-tipped missiles," he said. "India may therefore feel more and more anxious to fill this gap."

Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a defence analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank, agreed the deal would have serious consequences for the region but said it was unlikely to result in increased arms spending on both sides.

"Nevertheless, India has been paying adequate attention in recent years to the acquisition of naval capabilities, including submarines. This is something India has to do irrespective of the China-Pakistan deal," he said.

"If India does not replenish the dwindling submarine force, it will end up having the same number of submarines as Pakistan. And now if this deal goes through, that number will be heavily skewed in favour of Pakistan."

Additional reporting by Teddy Ng