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Malaysia Denies Interest in JF-17, But Export Hopes Remain

December 21, 2015 (Photo Credit: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor's note: The original version of this article, published at 2:47 p.m. ET Monday, stated that Malaysia was considering the JF-17 as an option for its Air Force modernization program, as signaled by its High Commissioner to Pakistan Dr. Hasrul Sani, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), but this article has been updated to reflect the defence minister denying interest in the fighter.

ISLAMABAD — Malaysia's Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein has denied media reports that the country is considering the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder as part of its Air Force modernization plans. Analysts nevertheless think the JF-17 is on the cusp of export success.

Hussein was responding to a question put to him by Malaysian news media after an interview Malaysia's High Commissioner to Pakistan Dr Hasrul Sani gave the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP). He was reported to have discussed the JF-17 in the context of boosting the wider bilateral relationship.

However, even before the official denial of interest, analysts were unsure Malaysia would buy the JF-17 despite believing the aircraft is well-suited to its requirements.

Though it would complement the heavier Su-30MKM Flanker fighters in service, Malaysian sources privately indicated that Western fighters already under consideration stand a more realistic chance of being selected.

Malaysia has long indicated a desire to replace its remaining US-supplied F-5E/F fighter aircraft, and the MiG-29s it acquired from Russia in the '90s. This may result in an order for 36 to 40 aircraft, according to information available on the program.

Prior to Tuesday's denial, author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley believed the Malaysian interest to be genuine, but cautioned there was more to consider.

"Heads of diplomatic missions don't usually say things publicly that aren't accurate", he said. "So there is probably something in this, in that interest appears to have been expressed, but the devil is as always in the detail, and there will have to be agreement by Beijing to any movement toward a deal."

He has therefore been surprised by the turn around.

Nevertheless, author, analyst, and former Air Force pilot Kaiser Tufail thinks Pakistan's defense products are still attractive to certain states.

"These products have been amply proven in the hands of very professional armed forces. These are reasons enough for many developing countries to look for defense hardware from Pakistan," he said.

It remains to be seen if this interest will transform into sales though. This is especially so when considering entrenched opposition from other suppliers already well-established in this area of defense sales, and machinations by Pakistan's arch-rival India.

The latest news comes against the backdrop of renewed Egyptian interest in the JF-17, but also reports of the same from Morocco and Sri Lanka, and after years of efforts, Tufail believes the JF-17 is on the cusp of achieving export sales.

"I think 2016 is going to see at least three export orders, as the deals are in the final stages," Tufail said.

Though the JF-17 "stands a fairly good chance," Tufail highlighted "the Indians are certain to field the Tejas in the international market in the coming months," in reference to India's own lightweight fighter.

"The marketing tussle is expected to be interesting."

Morocco is reported to have requested that the JF-17 participate in the Rabat Air Show in 2016 amid local speculation the type is being considered to replace the F-5E Tiger II fighters in Moroccan service.

Morocco has already purchased the VT-1A tank, which is a Chinese-produced version of the Pakistani Al-Khalid; therefore, analysts are confident the JF-17 has a good chance based on the existing defense relationship.

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has been speculated as a JF-17 customer for a number of years, though no confirmation has emerged despite numerous inquiries by Defense News. Pakistani officials said they do not comment on such deals before they have been signed as a matter of policy.

A JF-17 sale to Sri Lanka may not be so easy, however.

News reports from Sri Lanka indicate the interest is genuine, but it has run into ferocious Indian opposition. New Delhi demanded the deal be canceled and any alternative to be purchased instead, and at Indian expense, if need be.

Other reports stated India has offered the Tejas as an alternative.

"The Indians are coming on strong in this," said Cloughley. "They will do everything they can to disrupt Pakistan-[Sri Lankan] military cooperation of any sort.

He cited domestic India considerations in respect to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu "because it's quite important vote-wise" as a major driving force behind this opposition.

Tufail, however, points to a rather more base reason for the India opposition: "[India] has no reason to oppose Sri Lanka for a JF-17 bid, except suffering from a 'sour grapes' syndrome."

Nevertheless, Cloughley said a JF-17 sale to Sri Lanka may not transpire.

"The feeling in Colombo is one of resentment, but I think the Indians' bullying may well work."

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