Li’s Pak. visit to deepen ‘all-weather’ ties

Plans to develop Chinese-run Gwadar port likely to figure in Wednesday’s talks

May 21, 2013 10:24 pm | Updated May 22, 2013 08:50 am IST - Beijing

When the aircraft carrying Chinese Premier Li Keqiang enters Pakistani airspace on Wednesday after departing from Mumbai, it will receive an escort from six JF-17 Thunder jets — aircraft jointly designed by China and Pakistan, seen as a symbol of the close strategic relationship between the “all-weather” allies.

Mr. Li’s two-day visit, which follows his three days of engagements in India, will be aimed at deepening economic links between the two countries. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the visit will also provide an opportunity for both countries to assess how to take ties forward under new leadership. Mr. Li’s trip, which will mark the first high-level visit from China following the once-in-a-decade leadership transition that was completed in March, takes place only days after elections held in Pakistan. The Ministry said Mr. Li will meet with Prime Minister-elect Nawaz Sharif on Thursday. He will meet President Asif Ali Zardari on the first day of his visit.

Gwadar project

Some of the MoUs expected to be signed will likely reaffirm China’s commitment to developing the strategically significant Gwadar port project. Built with Beijing’s assistance, management of the port was taken over by a Chinese company earlier this year. Pakistan is seeking Chinese support to provide transport links to Gwadar to inject energy into the initiative, starting with a link to the domestic railway network.

For China, the port’s significance lies in the access it provides to the Indian Ocean, offering a much-needed alternative route for its energy imports from West Asia. Around 80 per cent of China’s energy imports are currently routed through the narrow Malacca Straits.

Chinese planners have proposed building railway links and pipelines linking the far-western Xinjiang region with Gwadar. Last year, both countries completed a pre-feasibility study on a railway link from Kashgar, in Xinjiang, through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), to Havelian. While India has expressed opposition to China’s involvement in projects in PoK, it appears that China will likely continue with its investments in the region. Also on the table during Mr. Li’s visit is a proposed hydropower project in PoK.

Both countries are also expected to sign a number of engineering and energy deals. Mr. Song, the Vice-Foreign Minister, said Chinese companies were executing $ 25 billion worth of projects in the country.

Chinese officials said last week they attached "great importance" to the expanding civilian nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. Both countries are in talks over the sale of a 1 GW nuclear reactor, which will be the fifth – and largest – deal signed between the two countries.

One obstacle facing the growing links between both countries is the security situation in Pakistan, with many Chinese companies increasingly wary of investing in the country.

Only on Tuesday, a roadside bomb targeted a van carrying Chinese port workers, Reuters reported. After the Kingho Group pulled out of a $ 19 billion deal in 2011, Pakistani officials have made frequent trips to Beijing promising to guarantee the security of Chinese companies — assurances likely to be repeated during talks this week.

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