China to expedite delivery of 50 fighter jets to Pakistan

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has agreed to expedite the delivery of 50 fighter jets to Pakistan, a Pakistani government minister confirmed on Friday, as Islamabad tries to deepen ties with Beijing as an alternative to increasingly fragile relations with the United States.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has been holding talks with Chinese leaders during a visit that comes as ties with the U.S. have faltered after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan this month.

Pakistan’s Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar told media that his country was aiming to receive “50 aircraft in six months” from China at between $20 million and $25 million per aircraft.

As the pressure mounts in Washington, Gilani has courted “best friend” China, its biggest arms supplier, during the four-day visit that ended on Friday.

Pakistan’s already strained ties with the U.S., a major donor, were battered after U.S. forces on May 2 killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a garrison town near Islamabad.

The fact that bin Laden was found in Abbottabad, and had been living there for years, has prompted many in Washington to call for a review of the billions of U.S. civilian and military aid that Pakistan receives.

The Wall Street Journal originally quoted an unnamed high-ranking Pakistani Air Force spokesman, in Beijing with Gilani, as saying the jointly developed JF-17 jets would be in addition to another batch of the same aircraft that is currently being assembled in Pakistan.

The JF-17 “Thunder” program dates back to 1999 and is aimed at reducing Pakistan’s dependence on Western companies for advanced fighters.

The jets are a single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft, that Mukhtar said are being jointly produced between China and Pakistan.

“There was a loan given for starting the manufacturing of this because the Chinese will also buy these aircraft,” he said on Chinese financing for the order.

The Pakistani Air Force has ordered 150 “Thunders,” which it may increase to 250. The 50 mentioned in the report are likely part of the larger order.

In February 2010, Pakistan fielded its first JF-17 squadron with 14 aircraft.

The close ties between China and Pakistan reflect long-standing shared wariness of their common neighbor, India, and a desire to hedge against U.S. influence across the region.

Premier Wen Jiabao assured Gilani on Wednesday of China’s “all-weather friendship” and said Pakistan had made “huge sacrifices” in the international struggle against terrorism.

“China-Pakistan strategic cooperative relations have infused the two countries’ relationship with new force and vitality,” President Hu Jintao told Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari during a phone call on Friday to celebrate 60 years of relations, Xinhua news reported.

Those comments contrasted sharply with the U.S. Congressmen’s criticism of Pakistan’s failure to know bin Laden’s whereabouts and insinuations that its powerful military was in some way complicit in hiding the al Qaeda leader.

For its part, Pakistan is furious at the U.S. for violating its sovereignty by staging the secret raid that killed the world’s most wanted man.

Additional reporting by Miral Fahmy; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani