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•Eight MoUs signed with Beijing •‘Economic corridor’ envisaged •Fibre optic cable from border to Rawalpindi planned

BEIJING, July 5: China and Pakistan set their sights on Friday on developing a transport link through rugged mountains and troubled lands, a route they hope will boost economic growth and bring critical oil supplies to power-hungry China much faster.

A broad agreement for the Pak-China economic corridor was among eight pacts signed following a meeting in Beijing between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The 2,000km transport link was described as a “long-term plan” to connect Kashgar in northwestern China to the port of Gwadar, likely by road in the beginning and possibly by rail later.

Pakistan is hoping to attract greater Chinese investment to revive its moribund economy beset by inefficiency, corruption, political instability and chronic electricity shortages, while expanding two-way trade that exceeded $12 billion for the first time last year.

For its part, China wants Pakistan to crack down on insurgents from China’s Xinjiang region who are said to have taken refuge in Pakistan’s northwest alongside Al Qaeda-linked extremists. Pakistan says it has killed or extradited several of those militants over the past few years, but acknowledges that some remain at large in the area.

Another agreement is for a fibre-optic cable to be laid from the Chinese border to Rawalpindi which will boost Pakistan’s access to international communications networks.

China is to provide 85 per cent of the financing for the three-year project’s $44 million budget, with Pakistan covering the rest.

Mr Sharif’s visit to China is his first foreign trip since returning to power last month, highlighting the importance Pakistan places on its 63-year-old relationship with its most important ally in the region.

The two cooperate closely in diplomatic and defence affairs.

“Let me tell you very candidly and very sincerely that what I am witnessing here on my visit to Beijing, it reminds me of the saying our friendship is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey,” Mr Sharif told Mr Keqiang at the start of their meeting, employing the usual effusive language with which the two nations describe their relationship.

A joint statement issued after the meeting affirmed their support for an Afghan-led peace effort in the country following the withdrawal of US troops next year. It said they would “work with the regional countries and the international community to help Afghanistan achieve peace, stability and security”.

Hopes for road, rail and pipeline links from Kashgar to the presently little-used port at Gwadar received a major boost when control of the port was transferred to state-owned China Overseas Ports Holding Company Ltd in February. The statement said a joint committee would be set up which would oversee the upgrading and realigning of the 1,300km Karakoram highway running from Kashgar to Abbottabad over mountain passes as high as 4,693 metres.

If the transport link takes off, oil from the Middle East could be offloaded at Gwadar, which is located just outside the mouth of the Gulf, and transported to China through Balochistan and the rugged Karakoram mountains. Such a link will vastly cut the 12,000km route which Mideast oil supplies must now take to reach Chinese ports.

According to the joint statement, Pakistan and China resolved to promote the policies aimed at advancing the cause of peace, cooperation and harmony in the region.

During their meeting, Mr Sharif and the Chinese premier reaffirmed their commitment to pursue people-centric policies to mitigate poverty, promote social and economic development and diminish the roots of conflict.

Mr Sharif reaffirmed the commitment of his government to further promote and deepen the bilateral strategic cooperation.

The Chinese premier thanked Mr Sharif for choosing China as his first destination for foreign visit after coming to power.

Mr Sharif said the recent political transition in Pakistan was a historic development which would create political cohesion, social stability and economic growth. “It will also improve governance and lead to sound macro-economic management, thus creating an enabling environment for foreign investment in Pakistan,” he added.

The two sides reviewed with satisfaction the development of China-Pakistan relations and were of the opinion that the relationship had acquired growing strategic significance in the emerging dynamics of 21st century. They resolved to continue to deepen the strategic partnership in the new era.

The two leaders appreciated that Asia was the engine of global economic growth and more than 40 per cent of the global population resided in this vibrant and dynamic region. A major urbanisation and technological advancement is under way in the region which will unleash enormous potential for regional economic development.

The two countries decided to further deepen practical cooperation in all sectors and strengthen coordination and cooperation on international and regional issues. This has been agreed under the guiding principles of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good-Neighbourly Relations between China and Pakistan signed in April 2005 and on the basis of the existing close cooperation.—Agencies