Islamabad’s rival in New Delhi has already acquired the French Rafale jets and the Chinese J10-C jets are viewed as a direct response to the Indian acquisition.
Pakistan and India, have been locked in various disputes, primarily on the status of Kashmir, since the two countries gained their independence from the British in 1947.
The two have fought four wars, costing tens of thousands of lives, and constant border skirmishes force a tense political atmosphere to linger between the two states.
Continuing tensions have pushed Pakistan to purchase Chinese J-10C fighter jets, according to Muhammad Athar Javed, a defence analyst and the Director General of Pakistan House, a Denmark/Pakistan-based think tank on international affairs, whose sources in the Pakistani government confirmed Islamabad’s procurement of the warplanes.
While there is no official confirmation from Islamabad, Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani military analyst, also says that “the purchase has been made and the first batch will fly on 23rd March, which is Pakistan's Republic Day,” according to multiple reports.
The primary threat against Pakistan comes from India, resulting in wars and conflicts, says Haider, reminding us that the most recent escalation happened in Feb 2019 “when India aggressed against Pakistan.”
“India operates the French Rafale and the capability is boosted by the Russian S-400 A2-AD system. As a result, that threat has to be tackled not just in relation to intentions but also capabilities. Pakistan cannot afford to allow major asymmetries in relation to its adversary,” Haider tells TRT World, explaining why Pakistan is making the purchase.
In July, the Indian defence ministry announced its purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France. Interestingly, Pakistan will also procure 36 warplanes from China, suggesting it’s a direct retaliation against New Delhi’s move.
“Pakistan’s F-16 fighters are aging already and Pakistan’s own JF-17 Thunder is in the making. We actually needed to create a deterrent to face India’s purchase of Dassault Rafale,” Javed tells TRT World.
While Pakistanis cannot create a direct symmetry with the Indians considering the size of New Delhi’s military, Islamabad wants to ensure with the purchase of Chinese jets that it can compete in near-equal terms, according to Javed.
“The Pakistan air force is one of the top air forces in the world,” he says.
Haider agrees with that assessment.
“PAF is a professional air force which, despite constrained resources, has performed brilliantly against the Indian Air Force. The February conflict proved that once again. That said, even top-shelf human resource and training requires state-of-the-art platforms,” he says.
Why Chinese jets?
China is a close ally of Pakistan due to various clashing points between Beijing and New Delhi across South Asia as Asia’s two major powers compete with each other to secure their political and economic interests in the strategically vital region.
This equation means Pakistan and China share plenty of common ground on a number of issues, developing strategic ties and increasing military cooperation. But there are also other reasons for Pakistan’s purchase of Chinese jets.
“Pakistan Air Force needs a 4.5 generation multirole fighter. European fighters are very expensive and the US is not an option because of suspension of security assistance with Islamabad, despite Pakistan being nominally a Non-Nato Ally,” Haider says.
“Pakistan faces remarkable sanctions from the US despite its purchase of F-16s,” Javed says. As a result, like Turkiye, Pakistan has moved to create indigenous solutions to develop its military hardware in the face of US opposition, he says.
Even operating F-16s is problematic for Pakistan because Washington places restrictive conditions on their use, Javed says. There are also problems related to its repair process, he adds. China does not usually place conditions on the weapons it sells to other countries.
Javed says increasing partnership between China and Pakistan led some to call the two countries “iron brothers”.
The ongoing PAC JF-17 Thunder project, which aims to produce a lightweight, single-engine, fourth-generation multirole combat aircraft, is one of the products of this iron brotherhood. The Chinese name of the joint project is Xiaolong or 'Fierce Dragon'. The project is mainly crafted to replace Pakistan’s A-5C, F-7P/PG, Mirage III, and Mirage V combat aircraft.
But either the joint project or Pakistan’s purchase of Chinese J-10C fighters should not be exaggerated in the face of India’s recent armament, Javed says. “India is one of the top buyers of arms, according to various military sources. They are buying from anywhere in the world, including Russia,” he says.
While Washington was angered by Turkiye’s purchase of Russian S-400s, the US has not shown its wrath against India after the country bought the same air defense systems from Moscow.
“For Pakistan, the J-10C model is important,” Javed says, referring to the aircraft’s technologically advanced features.
But it does not mean Pakistan is leaving the Western alliance, he adds, saying it is Pakistan's right to defend itself.
Javed also notes that Pakistan’s purchase of Chinese jets does not mean that it wants war with India. “We want to be friends with India,” he says, referring to Pakistan’s long efforts to create “a system of communication” with New Delhi.
But India’s illegal unilateral change of its constitution in regard to the political status of the internationally disputed region of Kashmir makes things worse, he argues.
Despite differences, all of the Pakistani establishment is still on the same page saying “Pakistan and India should work together,” Javed adds. “If we come together, most of the solutions are there.”