Nirupama Subramanian

President Hu is expected to ink many new agreements with Pakistan for increased cooperation in the economic, social, and cultural spheres.

AS PAKISTAN prepares for the three-day visit of the Chinese President Hu Jintao starting on November 23, expectations are sky high of a friendship that both countries describe as "higher than the highest mountain, deeper than the deepest sea."

This year, Pakistan and China marked the 55th year of their diplomatic relations with several exchanges of delegations and two visits by President Pervez Musharraf, once in February and then again in June when he went to attend the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. President Hu's upcoming visit has been described as "a culmination" of the celebrations.

President Hu is expected to ink many new agreements with Pakistan for increased cooperation in the economic, social, and cultural spheres. By far the most important of these would be the Free Trade Area agreement to which the final touches are being given ahead of the visit. The two countries are also to sign a simultaneous agreement for a five-year action plan to promote trade and economic ties.

But the question to which Pakistan wants an answer is whether China will sign a civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact with it. After the United States and India concluded their nuclear cooperation deal, it has been Pakistan's contention that, in the interests of parity and regional stability, Washington must sign a similar deal with it. But the Bush administration has made it clear several times, even as recently as last week, that there was no question of replicating the India nuclear pact with Pakistan as it was "a unique deal with a unique country."

Pakistan's response has been to look to China for support. The two countries already cooperate in the nuclear energy field, following an Agreement on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy in 1986 under which China has assisted under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards in the setting up of two nuclear reactors in Pakistan. Chashma-I went operational in 2000 and Chashma-II is still under construction. Based on a Chinese prototype, both have a capacity of 300 MW each.

Pakistan says its energy needs are growing annually by about 10 to 12 per cent and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission wants to set up at least a dozen more nuclear reactors to meet the target of 8,800 MW. Since President Musharraf's June visit to China, it has been almost taken for granted in Pakistan that Beijing has consented to build six of these.

Recent statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking to play down these expectations are being interpreted as efforts by both sides to keep the deal quiet and away from the public eye because of all the international pressure on Beijing not to help Islamabad. But if an agreement is indeed not on the cards contrary to what many have assumed, there is likely to be all-round disappointment, even a feeling of being let down by a trusted ally, particularly after China's assurances to New Delhi on cooperation in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Following the passage of the India-U.S. nuclear deal through Congress, there has been some wishful thinking in Pakistan of the possibility of a "new Cold war pitting the U.S. and India against a China-Pakistan alliance. For those painting this scenario, the virtual backing by China of the nuclear deal between New Delhi and Washington during President Hu's India visit is likely to have come as a crushing blow."

All said and done, Pakistanis are emotional about their country's relations with China. This is one bilateral relationship that has no parallel in the world, many Pakistanis say. And perhaps it is, enduring the shifting sands of international relations. For Pakistan, the U.S. has been an off-again on-again partner, seen as using Islamabad to achieve its strategic goals in the region and ditching it when those goals are met. On the other hand, Pakistan and China refer to each other as "all weather friends."

China has provided Pakistan the security of constant backing by a big power, while Islamabad has been an accommodating ally in the geo-strategic middle of South, Central, and West Asia, sorting out a disputed border to Beijing's advantage notwithstanding India's claim to it, and more recently clamping down on Uighur separatists operating in its territory. It has been a willing market for Chinese goods, and an unconditional supporter of Beijing in international fora. Pakistan has also acted as Beijing's bridge to other Islamic countries.

Relations in the 1950s were lukewarm due to Islamabad's membership of the two Cold War anti-communist military alliances, SEATO and CENTO, but the turning point came with China backing Pakistan in the 1965 war with India.

Since then, Pakistanis think of China as a friend, and believes this feeling is mutual. During the 2005 visit of Premier Wen Jiabao, the two countries signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, which according to the former Ambassador to Beijing, Akram Zaki, is the only such treaty that China has signed with any country. "This is not just a declaration of intention but puts the goodwill in a legal framework. It has converted an old relationship into marriage," he said at a recent seminar on Pakistan-China relations.

But the improvement of ties between China and India has brought the painful awareness of an outsider in this marriage. Sections of the Indian strategic community have complained that China does not yet accord Jammu and Kashmir the same status as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But Pakistan is still coming to terms with China's stated neutrality on the Kashmir issue, part of its balancing act between an old friendship and a new interest. The neutrality extends to other arenas too. For instance, Pakistan has to put up with the reality that its special relationship with China cannot get it early full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is more likely to be accorded to all three observers Iran, India, and Pakistan at the same time.

On the face of it, Pakistan has little reason to complain. China continues to be an important supplier of defence equipment to Pakistan. In the production pipeline are the 22-P frigates and the PF-17 aircraft, for which the Chinese have even reportedly persuaded Russia to supply the engines.

Developing Gwadar

Chinese assistance has been invaluable in the construction of what analysts describe as Pakistan's flagship infrastructure project Gwadar port. The first phase of the port was completed last year at a reported cost of $100 million. Work on the second phase has begun, with the Chinese once again absorbing some of the estimated cost of $16.3 million.

Gwadar, with its envisaged berths, container terminals, transhipment facilities plus industrial zones in the port city, is Pakistan's projected energy hub, situated strategically near the Hormuz Straits through which pass nearly half of all the oil tankers in the world. President Musharraf has talked of an energy corridor from Gwadar to China, offering an alternative to the sea route that the Chinese currently use through the Malacca Straits. He has also tried to interest the Chinese in building an oil refinery and a petrochemicals complex at Gwadar, and offered its facilities after completion to the Chinese Navy.

During President Hu's visit, the two countries may sign a formal contract for upgrading the Karakoram Highway at a cost of $794 million. China is said to be ready to take on as much as 90 per cent of the cost to broaden and repair the overland connection between the two countries, first built in 1978 but now in a state of disrepair.

But some observers in Pakistan are beginning to take a critical look at relations with China. The former chief economist in the government of Pakistan, Fasihuddin has pointed out that of the 42 MoUs signed with China in 2004 and 2005, many are "reiterations" or repetitions, pointing to a gap between announcements and implementation. Others have questioned if China is really that interested in hauling up its oil or gas on one of the most difficult terrains of the world. The high-maintenance Karakoram Highway is snow bound for nearly five months in a year, and they ask if an envisaged rail link running parallel to it is feasible. Add to this the troubles in Balochistan, where Gwadar is located, which has already claimed the lives of six Chinese engineers.

Deep down, there is a fear in Pakistan that China may not continue to indulge an old friend for all time to come as it increasingly looks for economically beneficial partnerships. Nonetheless or perhaps all the more reason why Pakistan is preparing to pull out all the stops to welcome President Hu. Many recall the welcome accorded to Premier Wen last year as a "genuine people's welcome." An Islamabad-based Chinese journalist remarked that he had not seen such a reception even in China. From all indications, President Hu is all set to get an even warmer reception.