Islamabad: China has agreed to immediately provide 50 JF-17 fighter jets to Pakistan, a major outcome of a visit by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to Beijing this week, Pakistani officials said Thursday.
China and Pakistan have jointly produced the JF-17 aircraft, but the new planes would be equipped with more sophisticated avionics, the officials said. The latest jet fighters would be paid for by China, they said.
The announcement came as Pakistan's already tense relations with the United States soured further after the killing of Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan on May 2.
Last week, Pakistan's spy chief denounced the United States in a rare briefing before Parliament in which he condemned the American raid for breaching Pakistan's sovereignty. Parliament, in turn, called for the government to revisit relations with the United States.
Mr. Gilani's visit to Beijing served as a pointed reminder of Pakistani suggestions that the government might seek to recalibrate relations with the United States, using China to offset what many here view as an overdependence on Washington.
The United States has provided Pakistan with some $20 billion in aid, mostly military, for its cooperation in fighting terrorism since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Much of that aid has come in the form of reimbursements for Pakistani counterterrorism operations.
Both the aid and the effectiveness of Pakistan's cooperation have been called into question by the discovery that Bin Laden had lived for years in a large compound adjacent to a top military academy in the city of Abbottabad, a two-hour drive from the capital, Islamabad.
While the Obama administration would still like Pakistan's cooperation to wind down the war in Afghanistan and to root out terrorist groups, some American lawmakers are now calling for aid to Pakistan to be cut or suspended.
For their part, Pakistani officials were incensed that the Obama administration gave them no notice of the raid until helicopters bearing a Navy Seal team had already left the country.
Mr. Gilani's four-day visit to China may help Pakistan as it tries to regain leverage with the United States. During his visit, Mr. Gilani met with Premier Wen Jiabao of China, who bolstered Pakistan by saying the United States should respect Pakistan's sovereignty.
The news about the JF-17 aircraft is clearly a signal that Pakistan is shopping for alternatives to Washington, though the value of the deal may be more symbolic than decisive in terms of Pakistan's military capacity.
Pakistani military officials have consistently complained that American aid, which they would nonetheless like to keep flowing, falls short on many essential military items that the Americans have been reluctant to offer.
The United States provides Pakistan with F-16 fighter jets to help the country match the air power of its archrival India, but Pakistani military officials have complained that their F-16 fleet is aging.
The deal is another sign that Pakistan's relations with China are frequently far less encumbered than those with the United States, and that in many ways the interests of Pakistan and China coincide more easily.
The United States may be Pakistan's largest benefactor, but China is Pakistan's largest trading partner, and for years the Chinese have heavily invested in building a deep-water port in the Pakistani city of Gwadar.
China is often referred to as Pakistan's "all-weather friend," a contrast to the common depiction of its up-and-down relationship with the United States, which is deeply unpopular here.
The United States has invested in a special relationship with India. Both China and Pakistan, on the other hand, view India as a rival. They share an interest in containing India's regional influence, particularly as the United States draws down its forces in Afghanistan, a process the Obama administration says it will start this summer.
At a landmark meeting on April 16 in the Afghan capital, Kabul, top Pakistani officials suggested to Afghan leaders that they, too, needed to look to China, an ascendant power, rather than align themselves closely with the United States, according to Afghan officials.
"You couldn't tell exactly what they meant, whether China could possibly be an alternative to the United States, but they were saying it could help both countries," an Afghan official said afterward.
Story First Published: May 20, 2011 09:54 IST