ISLAMABAD, May 22: In a reaffirmation of the customary description of Sino-Pakistan relationship being an “all weather friendship”, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang started his two-day visit to Pakistan on Wednesday with a pledge to deepen strategic ties irrespective of the international situation.

Flying into Rawalpindi from India, his first stop in a four-nation tour, Prime Minister Li was quoted by the Presidency’s press office as having said that he had chosen to visit Pakistan to show the international community that China was committed to consolidating “its traditional friendship with Pakistan and deepening the strategic cooperation… no matter how the international situation may evolve”.

Putting aside the protocol for visiting foreign leaders, President Asif Ali Zardari received premier Li at Nur Khan Airbase (Rawalpindi). Li’s special Air China Boeing 747 aircraft was escorted by a formation of six Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunder aircraft, co-developed by China and Pakistan, after it entered Pakistan’s airspace.

The Chinese prime minister landed in Pakistan under intense security. Mobile phone services in the capital remained suspended at the time of Mr Li’s arrival.

Prime Minister Li was decorated with Pakistan’s highest civil award, Nishan-i-Pakistan, by President Zardari who said at a reception held in his honour that the “visit will mark yet another important step forward in reinforcing the strategic partnership between the two countries”.

While renewing Beijing’s commitment to helping Islamabad in preserving its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, Li said “China and Pakistan will always remain each other’s trustworthy partners and reliable brothers”.Li is on his first official overseas visit since assuming office in March. His travel to Pakistan assumed additional importance because he opted to visit Islamabad during transition of power to the new government. The move is being seen domestically as a strong message of goodwill and solidarity to the new leadership that would be taking over in coming days.

PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif, whose party won the May 11 polls, met the Chinese leader at the Presidency and is scheduled to call on him for a formal meeting on Thursday. Main challenges confronted by the incoming government include security and economy.

President Zardari, speaking at the reception, said ties with China were based on national consensus and formed the cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy. He hoped that the ties would grow during the tenure of the coming government.

His optimism about the future of relations with Beijing was shared by Mr Li who noted that “the tree of China-Pakistan friendship” planted six decades ago “is now exuberant with abundant fruits”.

AGREEMENTS: Mr Li held one-to-one talks with President Zardari. The two sides later held delegation-level talks and the two leaders also witnessed the signing of a number of agreements and memorandums of understanding, including one related to a Pakistan-China economic corridor.

In addition to the MoU on developing an economic corridor, Pakistan and China signed agreements on maritime cooperation, satellite navigation, a Boundary Management System between Xinjiang and Gilgit-Baltistan, border ports and their management system, cooperation in marine science and technology and Space and Upper Atmospheric Research.

ENERGY: Mr Li outlined his government’s preferences for cooperation with Pakistan by calling for priority projects in connectivity, energy development and power generation and building of a China-Pakistan economic corridor.

The two countries are already pursuing a number of energy projects, including construction of dams and nuclear energy plants.

President Zardari told his guest that Pakistan needed Chinese cooperation for developing hydro, thermal, solar and wind power generation. He asked for early holding of the third round of the Pakistan-China Joint Energy Working Group meeting.

The president underscored the need for improved connectivity between the two countries and the region at large. The Gwadar project, he said, was central to the programme for improving connectivity as it held great promise for the creation of a regional economic and trade corridor.

China assumed the operational control of Gwadar port this year. The Chinese government will help develop the road network and related infrastructure for the full utilisation of the potential of the new port.

TRADE: President Zardari and Premier Li agreed on pushing forward negotiations on a free trade agreement. One round of talks has already been held on the issue.

The two countries plan to increase the volume of their bilateral trade to $15 billion from the current $12.4bn during the next few years.

“The meeting decided to start work on the China-Pakistan Agriculture Demonstration Zone and establishing a Young Entrepreneurs Forum for this purpose. The two countries have agreed to holding an annual Pak-China Trade and Investment Forum which will meet alternately in Beijing and Islamabad,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.

“Our trade, finance, banking, and economic relations have grown substantially over the years. No doubt greater connectivity through the establishment of trade, communications and energy corridor as well as increased people-to-people interaction will give impetus to our existing ties,” Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso said at a banquet he hosted for the visiting leader.

Premier Li promised to continue helping Pakistan in fighting terrorism.

Beijing has long expressed concerns about the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a Chinese rebel group allegedly having sanctuaries in the tribal areas, but Mr Li avoided publicly discussing the issue and instead “appreciated the huge human and material sacrifices Pakistan had made in the fight against extremism”.

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