BEIJING — China has agreed to provide Pakistan with 50 more fighter jets in a deal clinched during Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s trip to Beijing, Pakistani defense officials said Friday.
Gilani’s four-day visit 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.
Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar said Pakistan was seeking delivery within six months of the JF-17 Thunder jets, a single-engine multirole fighter developed in cooperation between China and Pakistan.
Mukhtar, who was in Beijing with Gilani, gave no details about financing, but put the price per plane at $20 million to $25 million, higher than many defense experts’ estimates of $15 million.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it had no information about the agreement and calls to the Defense Ministry rang unanswered.
The planes known as the FC-1 Xiaolong in China are offered for export as cost-efficient replacements for aging workhorses such as the MiG-21 and Northrop F-5 Tiger, defense experts say.
Pakistan’s initial squadron of 14 was used alongside U.S.-made F-16s to bomb insurgent strongholds in South Waziristan in 2009, and its air force long was expected to procure more.
Defense cooperation is a major aspect of what Pakistan and China call their “all-weather friendship,” a term Islamabad accentuates in contrast to more fickle Washington relations.
China and Pakistan also mutually distrust India, which China fought in a brief but bloody 1962 border war. Pakistan and India have battled three times since 1947, including in a 1999 conflict that brought the nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of all-out war.
Gilani’s visit was long planned as part of commemorations of 60 years of China-Pakistan diplomatic ties. He has met with top Chinese leaders and overseen the signing of three agreements on economic and technology cooperation, banking and mining.
Along with friendship, China provides Pakistan with aid and investment, while Pakistan offers Beijing diplomatic backing, including among Islamic nations who might otherwise criticize China’s handling of 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.
Pakistan is furious that the U.S. did not inform it in advance of the May 1 raid that took out bin Laden. Some U.S. lawmakers want the billions in American aid sent to Pakistan reviewed amid suspicions that elements of its security forces protected bin Laden.
“I think Gilani hopes that by cozying up 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.