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    South Asia
     Oct 10, 2007
French arms deal with Pakistan risks US ire
By Federico Bordonaro

The news last month that Pakistan is likely to get French air-to-air missiles (AAMs) and radar for its JF-17 fighter aircraft has raised some eyebrows in the US.

The reason is that MICA AAMs produced by MBDA and RC-400 multimission radar built by Thales may enrich China's rapidly growing military capabilities if sold to Pakistan, since Islamabad is developing its fighter plane jointly with Beijing. The JF-17 is a lightweight multi-role fighter co-developed by Pakistan



Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation under a joint venture of China and Pakistan.

Thus, some observers say, the widely debated European Union arm systems ban against China may finally be circumvented, in such a way that it could damage US efforts to keep Beijing's air power at disadvantage vis-a-vis Taiwan. As some Indian and Pakistani sources have pointed out, French-built Mirage fighters owned by Taiwan are actually equipped with such missiles and radar.

Taiwan and India are obviously concerned with China's military build-up. If China gets the chance to closely look at French advanced technology in possession of Taipei, Beijing could theoretically become capable of countering it effectively.

However, it must be noted that the issue of military technology transfer is fairly complicated, and that Pakistan's acquisition of French systems is not automatically a dramatic reinforcement of Chinese capabilities, unlike some reports suggest.

In fact, if French companies sell radar and missiles to Pakistan, they don't sell the know-how necessary to build such systems from scratch. Clearly, bits of the source code needed to integrate the components into the JF-17 will be transferred by the French to the Pakistanis. Missile-radar integration and avionics will be developed by France and Pakistan, with the Chinese contribution focused on hardware.

This means that if Pakistan transfers such code to Beijing, China could actually become capable of integrating the two systems into its fighter jets (like the J-10), although it will not include the JF-17 in its air force. But it does not mean that Beijing will be able to produce such systems.

Therefore, the key variable here is how many MICAs and RC-400s France sells to Pakistan. Of course, if Islamabad buys new series of them after the first acquisition, it is conceivable that China could get its hand on them in the future, independently of the JF-17 development.

Rumors of the deaL
It is certainly no secret that France has eyed Indian and Pakistani defense markets as a great opportunity to expand its strong military-industrial sector. For years, French companies have provided weapons and systems to both Delhi and Islamabad. However, the deal regarding the JF-17 has been a difficult one, mainly for political-diplomatic reasons. This explains the lack of information from France and the extreme cautiousness in all aspects of the current arrangements.

After some leading British and US publications highlighted the danger of sensitive military technology transfer to China via Pakistan, officials from MBDA and Thales refused to comment on the deal. France's Defense Minister Herve Morin subtly conveyed the Paris position nonetheless, as he replied to Associated Press journalists that "to my knowledge, there is no arms embargo for Pakistan".

Back in September 2004, Jane's Defence Weekly's special correspondent Robert Sae-Liu reported that the choice of a multimode pulse-Doppler radar for the JF-17 fighter was reported in 2003 as "involving a competition between Phazotron of Russia with the Kopyo system, Galileo (FIAR) of Italy with the Grifo S-7, and Thales of France with the RC 400".

Hence, a short history of the JF-17 project unveils Thales' interest. The simple fact that two French companies are involved in the issue worries the US. Paris has long lobbied within the EU for lifting of the arms embargo against Beijing imposed by Europe after the 1989 Tienanmen incident.

Most French Gaullists and Socialists have pushed for a lifting of the ban. The reason is twofold. On one hand, the French defense industry is aggressively seeking expansion in Asia's markets, and China is arguably the most interesting of them. On the other hand, Paris cultivates the geopolitical ambition of creating a multipolar world in which the EU will progressively acquire strategic autonomy from the United States.

However, President Nicolas Sarkozy's election in May 2007 has started an apparently rapid and powerful rapprochement between Paris and Washington on a number of issues. Interestingly, some French analysts who deal with so-called "economic warfare" dynamics have recently criticized France's pro-China orientation. They have even lambasted civilian air industry deals with Beijing made by Airbus, reasoning that French companies that only seek market opportunities will eventually jeopardize European technological superiority over China.

Up until this year, though, Washington has successfully counter-lobbied France's efforts to persuade its EU partners about the anachronism of the embargo, and the ban is still valid despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise. Now, Sino-Pakistani military cooperation, which is likely to remain strong also in light of the growing US-Indian strategic partnership, could complicate the situation even more.

Washington furious?
While on the surface the Franco-American reconciliation is fully underway, the reality is slightly more complicated. Paris' hard, pro-US stance on Iran's nuclear issue is one thing; another matter is how France and the US perceive the international system and balance of power.

Sarkozy's position on the arms ban against Beijing will possibly become clearer after the French president visits Beijing later this year, but it is unlikely that France will completely abandon its dream of a more assertive and autonomous Europe when it comes to security and defense policy.

Quoted by the Pakistani daily Dawn on September 14, British defense analyst and Asia specialist Alexander Neill said that Washington may have a "quite vicious" reaction if France does not reconsider selling such systems to Islamabad.

However, according to various sources, France and Pakistan will likely reach an agreement on the missiles and radar. It is thus possible that China will be able to exploit yet another fault line in French and American diplomacy.

Whether or not the development of the JF-17 will allow China to acquire military systems and technology that will boost its power in relation to Taiwan, as the US fears, such a program will likely cause a dilemma for France: by proceeding with enhanced cooperation with Pakistan, Paris risks not only triggering Washington's ire, but also upsetting India and Taiwan - thereby complicating its future defense marketing with two important buyers.

Federico Bordonaro is senior analyst with the Power and Interest News Report (www.pinr.com). These views are his own.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

 


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