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Chinese PM Jiabao arrives in Pakistan

December 17, 2010

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Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (L) walks with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at the Chaklala airbase in Rawalpindi on December 17. — Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Friday arrived in Pakistan, warmly welcomed at the start of a three-day visit aimed at boosting trade and investment by finalising 20 billion dollars' worth of deals.

Accompanied by a huge business delegation, he is the first Chinese premier in five years to visit the country on the front line of the US war on al Qaeda and battling a Taliban insurgency in its northwest.

Arriving from India, where relations have been clouded by sensitive trade and territorial issues, Wen's Pakistan leg may be less politically fraught in a country that regards China as its closest foreign ally.

Pakistan imposed blanket security Friday as Shia Muslims  — 20 per cent of the population — marked their holiest day, Ashura, which was last year marred by a bomb at a Karachi religious procession that killed 43 people.

“We have unprecedented relations with China. The whole nation is proud of Pakistan-China friendship,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told Pakistan Television at Chaklala airbase, which rolled out the red carpet for Wen.

The Chinese premier stepped off his Air China Boeing 747, greeted by Gilani, his cabinet, Pakistani military chiefs and a guard of honour with a 21-gun salute that played both national anthems.

Pakistan says China has already agreed to development projects worth 13.2 billion dollars in energy, agriculture, infrastructure and health, and wants trade to climb from seven billion to 18 billion dollars in five years.

Yet the target is dwarfed by Wen's agreement with India to double bilateral trade to 100 billion dollars by 2015 and to push Indian exports in an effort to bridge a trade surplus of 20 billion dollars a year in China's favour.

“Work on projects worth 14 billion dollars is continuing at present, while projects of another 20 billion dollars will be signed between the two sides during the visit,” a Pakistani government official told AFP.

Wen is to sign the raft of agreements with President Asif Ali Zardari, address a joint session of the Pakistani parliament, and attend a business cooperation summit during his visit.

Behind the scenes, talks are also believed to be planned on China building a one-gigawatt nuclear power plant as part of Pakistani plans to produce 8,000 megawatts of electricity by 2025 and overcome acute energy shortages.

The West has expressed concern about the security of Pakistan's nuclear material, but China has built a 300-megawatt nuclear power reactor at Chashma in central Punjab province and another of the same capacity is under way.

Without going into details, officials in Pakistan admit the country has a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with China, a counter-weight to India's agreement with the United States on nuclear energy cooperation.

Pakistan depends on China's financial and political clout to offset the perceived threat from India and rescue its economy from the doldrums of catastrophic flooding, a severe energy crisis and poor foreign investment.

“The major breakthrough is expected to take place in the banking sector,” Pakistan's ambassador to China, Masood Khan, told PTV.

Reports say Wen will open a branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the top private bank in China.

Pakistan's prime minister has expressed hope that bilateral trade will rise to between 15 and 18 billion dollars over the next five years.

But security issues will also likely weigh on the agenda. China has been concerned about the threat of militants infiltrating its territory allegedly from Pakistan, particularly in its western Xinjiang region.

Despite the massive trade deals struck by Wen's delegation in India, there appeared little progress on easing tensions between the world's two most populous countries.