ISLAMABAD — The annual Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad, held on a rainy March 23, showcased the country’s military arsenal in a big way to allies, while sending clear but distinct messages to India and the United States.
The three most celebrated foreign guests were Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad; Azeri Defense Minister Col. General Zakir Hasanov; and the commander of the National Guard of Bahrain, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Isa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad arrives to attend the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019. (FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Azerbaijan and Malaysia are being courted as customers for the Sino-Pakistani JF-17, whereas Bahrain has recently become the first export customer for armored fighting vehicles designed by Pakistan’s Cavalier Group.
Other countries that participated in the parade included China, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. China and Turkey also sent aircraft to perform at the parade.
Coming soon after tensions flared with India, the presence of foreign participants demonstrated Pakistan was not alone, but also reflected aspirations for increased cooperation with regional allies.
According to Kamal Alam, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), “Pakistan is eyeing regional defense alignments, which include procurement, joint production and military sales. It is seeking to further entrench Turkish and Chinese military cooperation beyond just JF-17 and attack helicopters.”
PAC JF-17 ‘Thunder’ aircrafts fly during the rehearsal of the Pakistan National Day army parade in Islamabad on March 15, 2019. (FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
By comparison, Malaysia, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia are all historic allies that Pakistan wants to expand as military system buyers, touting Pakistan manufacturers as cheaper alternatives to Western equipment.
“The regional geopolitics and defense economics sits with [Pakistani Prime Minister] Imran Khan and the Army’s regional economic diplomacy,” Alam added.
Notably absent this year were any Indian observers, though Pakistan’s president used the parade to send a message: Pakistan’s continuing desire for peace should not be misconstrued as weakness.
Analyst, author and former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley said India’s Prime Minister “could not have permitted attendance at the occasion by guests from India” as it would have been electorally damaging. Substantial moves towards rapprochement are also improbable unless the Indian government won a substantial majority, “which is unlikely.”
Cloughley noted however, the “not-so-subtle message” for the U.S., and perhaps also for Moscow, was the participation of the Mi-35P Hind helicopter gunships, recently delivered by Russia, which he said was “part of the drift away from the U.S. as an arms supplier.”