China and Pakistan signed a deal to build a $44 million fiber-optic cable connecting their border region with the Pakistani military garrison city of Rawalpindi, and agreed to explore a strategic transport corridor.
The pacts were the highlights of talks between Pakistani and Chinese officials in Beijing as visiting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seeks to secure the investment his new government needs to repair a shattered economy. In a shot in the arm for Sharif, Pakistan and the International Monetary Fund yesterday agreed a $5.3 billion loan to boost the country’s depleted currency reserves.
By choosing Beijing for his first overseas trip since winning May 11 elections, Sharif signaled that securing Chinese funding ranks among his foreign policy priorities. Pakistan’s growing emphasis on ties with China follows years of strained relations with the U.S. amid the war in Afghanistan and American targeting of Pakistani guerrillas.
Meeting Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in the Chinese capital today, Sharif lauded bilateral ties, telling his host that the two countries’ friendship is “higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey.”
Huawei Technologies Co., China’s largest maker of networking equipment, will build the fiber-optic link in three years, project director Waseem Ahmad said, adding that 85 percent of the funding will be provided via Chinese loans. The agreement will give Pakistan more connectivity to international communications networks, Ahmad said. Rawalpindi is home to the headquarters of Pakistan’s army.
An initial pact on a transport corridor to link the western Chinese city of Kashgar with the Pakistani port of Gwadar, control of which was in February transferred to a state-run Chinese company, was also signed today. No details were given on what was described as a “long term” plan.
“China will encourage and support companies to invest in Pakistan and Pakistan will provide a good environment for China’s investment,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing in Beijing today.
While Sharif has called the road-and-rail project a “game changer” capable of generating revenue and jobs for Pakistan, financing and security concerns could prove hurdles. The route would run through Baluchistan province, where anger over exploitation of gas and minerals has spurred a separatist insurgency.
Aside from its touted role as a short cut for Chinese imports of Middle Eastern oil, officials in India and the U.S. have seen Gwadar as part of China’s strategic ambition to project its growing naval power into the Indian Ocean.
Unrest in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang which authorities have in the past linked to Islamist training camps in Pakistan may also be on the agenda for Sharif’s visit which ends on July 8.
Pakistan’s government presented a “very robust reform” agenda to secure the IMF assistance, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said at a briefing with officials from the multilateral lender in Islamabad yesterday. The program of credit needs approval from the IMF board, Pakistan mission head Jeffrey Franks said.
A plunge of about 40 percent in the reserves in the past year to $6 billion has left Pakistan with enough to cover only about two months of imports, central bank data shows. The slide has weighed on the rupee and adds to other challenges facing Sharif, which include energy shortages and a Taliban insurgency in the northwest. The currency touched a record low this week.
— With assistance by Michael Forsythe