ISLAMABAD— Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif heads to China Wednesday for a six-day official visit -- his first foreign trip after assuming office. Authorities are hoping to boost economic and security cooperation.
Sharif is visiting Beijing just weeks after his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang visited Islamabad and it comes at a time when Pakistan faces its worst energy crisis. Power outages lasting up to an entire day in parts of the country have sparked violent protests and further stalled the already weakened national economy.
Officials in both the countries say the Pakistani leader will seek assistance on how to ease his country’s energy troubles and increase Chinese investment in economic infrastructure development.
Foreign ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry said the focus of Sharif’s visit is essentially economic.
“And, therefore, all the projects and all the agreements will have an economic focus," Chaudhry said.
Economic cooperation between Pakistan and China has seen significant expansion in recent years. Bilateral annual trade exceeded $12 billion last year and there are more than 120 Chinese companies doing business in Pakistan.
The two countries also have close cooperation in the field of civil nuclear technology. Pakistan has installed two nuclear power plants with Chinese support each with a capacity of 300 megawatts while work on another two is under way.
China has recently taken over operation of Pakistan’s strategically important Gwadar port. Prime Minister Sharif told Chinese media ahead of his trip to Beijing that the main emphasis of his discussions with the Chinese leadership will be on clinching a proposed economic corridor that would link the southwestern Pakistani port with China’s western Xinjiang region.
“The China-Pakistan economic corridor is a project which would change the fate of this region," he noted. "So now that the management of Gwadar has been handed over to China and we expect that Gwadar is going to become a very important economic hub, or port in the Arabian Sea, which of course is also beneficial to China, so an economic corridor taking off from Kashgar [in Xinjiang] to Gwadar [port] is a game-changer as far as this region is concerned.”
The deep-sea Gwadar port is located near the Strait of Hormuz, which is the gateway for about 20 percent of the world’s oil. Both China and Pakistan have rejected concerns that the facility could serve as a Chinese naval base.
Analysts believe a deadly Taliban insurgency plaguing the country’s northwest, rising sectarian bloodshed and a violent turf war involving political parties and criminal gangs in the country’s commercial hub, Karachi, have added to the problems of policymakers trying to revive the badly ailing economy.
Pakistani officials and analysts also dismiss suggestions the recent closeness in their country’s relations with China stems from uneasiness in their diplomatic relations with the United States. Differences over how to conduct their counter-terrorism campaign has strained ties between Islamabad and Washington.
Fazal-ur Rehman with Islamabad’s privately-run Strategic Studies Institute, believes those tensions have had no impact on what he calls the “time-tested all-weather” Pakistan-China friendship.
“I think it [Pakistan-China relationship] is beyond any external factors because it has been an evolving relationship and it has been improving with the passage of time,” Rehman said.
Security issues are also expected to come under discussions during Sharif’s visit. While Pakistan is closely cooperating to help China curb a Muslim rebellion in the restive Xinjiang region, recent deadly attacks on Chinese experts in Pakistan have been a cause of concern for Beijing.
The latest attack took place more than a week ago in northern Pakistan, where suspected Islamist Taliban militants shot dead 10 foreign mountain climbers, including two Chinese. The violence has renewed demands by Chinese officials for enhancing safety of their nationals in Pakistan.