China and Pakistan are expected to discuss long-pending plans to accelerate construction of rail-lines and a pipeline from Kashgar in China's west to the port of Gwadar on the Persian Gulf, during Premier Wen Jiabao's three-day visit to Islamabad which began on Friday.

The Silk Road oasis town of Kashgar, which lies a few hours away from the Pakistan border along the Karakoram Highway, is at the centre of China's plans to develop its restive Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, which neighbours Pakistan. China has recently announced it will build a trading hub in the city, which will serve as a platform for Beijing to deepen economic and strategic links with energy-rich West and Central Asia.

The plan, officials and analysts say, is bringing new importance to Beijing's ties with Islamabad, given that Pakistan will play a crucial role, both from the point of view of diplomacy and simply, geography, in linking China with Afghanistan and West Asia.

"One of the most important reasons why we value our relations with Pakistan is that the country can play the role of a bridge between China and the Muslim world,” Hu Shisheng, a scholar at the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) told The Hindu in a recent interview ahead of Mr. Wen's visit.

Kashgar's transformation from an ancient Silk Road town to a modern trading hub is gathering pace, said Muhammed Ahmed Khan of the Kashgar-based Pakistan Business and Investment Promotion Council, in an interview during a visit to the city earlier this year.

When Mr. Khan, a trader from Rawalpindi, first moved to the sleepy oasis town, business was hard to come by. The long drive to Kashgar through the Karakoram highway, from the town of Gilgit in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), posed numerous obstacles – flooding, stray boulders and weathered roads - and kept most businessmen away.

But a decade on, that trickle of businessmen has grown into a flood, Mr. Khan says. The Pakistani community in the city is growing. "The Chinese are welcoming more and more Pakistanis to put in long-term investments here," says Liaqat Ali of the Gilgit-based 7 Brothers trading company, who makes the three-day drive to Kashgar twice a year through the Karakoram.

The view from the window of Mr. Khan's modest office, located along a dusty highway in Kashgar's suburbs, shows a city in the throes of transformation.

Trucks carrying construction equipment clog the roads, as construction cranes work day and night to transform the historic old town into a sprawling Economic Development Zone — the “Shenzhen of the West”, as one Chinese official says, referring to China's first Special Economic Zone.

The investments, say Chinese analysts, indicate China's long-term intentions to strengthen economic links in the region.

Chinese engineers in Kashgar have recently completed a feasibility study for the building of a railroad and an oil pipeline, according to Li Xuguang of Tsinghua University.

Sixty per cent of China’s imported oil comes from West Asia. The construction of a pipeline from the port at Gwadar, which is being built by China, will reduce Chinese dependence on the narrow Malacca Straits, through which 80 per cent of China’s supplies pass. “It will provide China with the shortest possible route to the oil-rich Middle East, replacing the dangerous maritime route through the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Yellow Sea,” Mr. Li wrote in the Global Times this week.

The plans have been accelerated since July 2009, when ethnic unrest in Xinjiang, between native Uighurs and China’s majority Han Chinese who have migrated to the region, left at least 197 dead. “After July, China will carry forward plans to build a new economic development zone in Kashgar, as part of modified development policies in the frontier region,” Mr. Hu said.

"Accompanying this kind of development in western regions, we value our relations with external surrounding regions, specially in the west, a lot, in terms of development, security and stability.”

Pakistan’s renewed importance was recently evident, according to Mr. Hu, after the floods in Pakistan last year. “That is why this year after the unprecedented foods in Pakistan we donated about $ 250 million,” he said. “This kind of assistance never happened in China’s history before.”

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