ISLAMABAD // India's plans to modernise its ageing air force have triggered a tit-for-tat Pakistani programme that could exacerbate strategic tensions in South Asia, officials and analysts said.
Defence analysts said the planned air force expansions were part of an arms race between India and Pakistan that dates back to the 1960s and the height of the Cold War.
The South Asian neighbours, both of which possess nuclear arsenals, have fought three wars and as many regionalised conflicts since gaining independence from British colonial rule in August 1947.
Siemon Wezeman, senior fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's arms transfer programme, said: "Although India and Pakistan deny it, an arms race is on. India wants to become a regional power, and is building its arsenal accordingly, while Pakistan wants to maintain a rough parity for survival" in the event of another conflict.d
His comments came after an announcement on May 21 by the Pakistani minister for defence, Ahmed Mukhtar, that Pakistan is to acquire 50 advanced JF-17 Thunder warplanes, to be co-produced with China at a factory about 50km west of Islamabad.
The new warplanes would carry an Italian "avionics package" that is far superior to the Chinese technology installed on the 30 aircraft currently being acquired by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), military officials close to the project said.
Two squadrons have been inducted since the first Thunder was manufactured in November 2010, with Pakistan likely to acquire 250 to 300 of the warplanes by 2015, defence analysts said.
Mr Mukhtar said China had also agreed in principle to supply Pakistan with FC-20 warplanes, a comparatively advanced aircraft that is taking over as the vanguard of the People's Liberation Army Air Force.
Pakistan is initially seeking 36 FC-20s, but any deal would be subject to Beijing being satisfied that the transfer of advanced military technology would not affect its trade relationships with the west, said the military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Defence analysts and former diplomats said the expansion of Pakistani air power is a direct response to India's plans to acquire 126 state-of-the-art western warplanes, defence analysts said.
Indian officials have said they would place an order this summer, either for the Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale warplanes.
New Delhi in April rejected competing bids from US manufacturers, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, causing embarrassment to the administration of the US president Barack Obama, which had lobbied hard for the deal.
India is looking to replace its ageing fleet of Soviet-vintage and French warplanes with Western warplanes and the Sukhoi-30MK1 aircraft, 272 of which are being manufactured in India under a joint venture with Russia. One hundred forty-two of the SU-30 aircraft had been delivered by January.
Similarly, Pakistan is phasing out a fleet of Chinese-built aircraft, based on modified Soviet designs, and French warplanes dating back to the 1980s.
Pakistan also possesses US-made F-16s, including 18 advanced Block 52 models, delivery of which was completed in February, along with upgrade kits for 26 F-16s acquired in the 1980s.
Indian analysts have said the Pakistani F-16 sales were a significant factor in India's rejection of US bids to supply the 126 new warplanes.
The US seeks to strike a balance in its relations with India and Pakistan, but often ends up annoying both, the analysts said.
US military sales to Pakistan are frequently criticised by India's government, while Pakistan regularly complains about the US agreement in 2008 to supply nuclear-power technology to India.
China has also opposed the nuclear deal, because of its strategic competition with India for influence in Asia, the analysts said.
Competing international strategic partners continue to back either South Asian side,- a scenario reminiscent of the Cold War, the analysts said.
They also said India has the support of Russia and the west, while China backs Pakistan.
Akram Zaki, formerly Pakistan's chief diplomat, said: "After the US nuclear deal with India, China came to the conclusion that the stability of Pakistan is in its national interest.
"In ideological terms, China wants peace and stability in South Asia, but that is only possible if the imbalance created by the US's extraordinary support to India is to some extent corrected".
Mr Zaki said that China's strategic philosophy was to make Pakistan "as far as is possible" self-sufficient in the production of defence equipment.
The analysts said competing strategic objectives in Asia of the west and China would continue to fuel arms purchases by India and Pakistan.
Chinese defence co-operation with Pakistan would reflect US policy on China, they said.
"It has a lot to do with how the Democrats and Republicans have seen China and its rise, and what policy is going to come from Washington: containment or constrainment," said Maria Sultan, director of the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute, a London-based think tank.
India's expansion of its defence capability is also increasingly aimed at the Sino-Pakistan alliance, the analysts said.
"China and Pakistan are a potential threat to India. That's why it is willing to do anything to enhance its [military] capabilities," Mr Wezeman said.