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.
Looking at the track record of the PML-N as regard to the construction of motorways and launching other infrastructure mega projects, there is no apprehension that the current set-up would ignore the Lowari tunnel project like his predecessor did during the last five years. The construction of the Kashghar to Gwadar road and railway track at a later stage seems to be long-term projects of strategic importance for Pakistan, especially military point of view. The construction of the Karakorum Highway in the 70s transformed the Sino-Pak relations and has since then played a very crucial role in cementing the two countries relations. However, geographically speaking, its closure due to different reasons like avalanches, protest strikes and flooding has always been a headache for the military because it affect the supply route to the military in the sensitive border areas with India. The turning point came in 1999 during the Kargil war when India threatened to block the KKH to cut off the supply line. After the war, army general and strategists reportedly pondered to have an alternative all-weather route to the then northern areas and relaunching of the Lowari tunnel project was presented as a solution to have such an alternative route to GB and AJK via Chitral. Under the plan, one or more tunnel will also be built to link Chitral with Gilgit-Baltistan, possibly at Chumarkhan etc. The way the PPP government dealt with all projects of national importance was a blow to the Lowari tunnel too. Now with the return of Nawaz Sharif, and the way he has started taking on the long-term projects with China, we should expect that the PML-N government would be taking on the tunnel project on a priority basis to link Pakistan with the Central Asian countries. This will be done not because of the problems of the people of Chitral but to meet the need of the needed international traffic to and from Gwadar port after it becomes fully operational. Nawaz Sharif can ill afford to launch such a mega project from China to Gwadar ignoring the nearly-finished Lowari tunnel that too is of national importance.
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 Afghanled peace effort in the country following the withdrawal of US troops next year. It said they would `work with the regional countries and theinternational 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.