Premier Li Keqiang vowed to strengthen his country’s partnership with Pakistan on Wednesday as he began an official visit less than a fortnight after the country’s general election.
The long-time allies will look to use the two-day trip to boost trade ties, and Li will meet prime minister-elect Nawaz Sharif – who has not yet been sworn in – as well as holding talks with senior officials.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party swept to victory in the May 11 general election on a promise to revitalise the struggling economy. Help from its giant northern neighbour will be important to this.
Trade between China and Pakistan hit an annual US$12 billion for the first time last year, according to Islamabad’s foreign ministry, and the two sides plan to raise this to US$15 billion in the next two to three years.
Li, arriving from India on his first overseas tour as premier, was met by President Asif Ali Zardari on the tarmac at Nur Khan air base in Rawalpindi next to Islamabad.
“The purpose of the visit is to devise a strategy to bolster future cooperation and friendship,” Li said in a statement quoted by state broadcaster PTV.
“We will strengthen a strategic partnership with Pakistan in whatever the international scenario and circumstances are.”
At a lunch hosted by Zardari and caretaker prime minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, attended by Sharif, Li said he was “really excited by past, present and future of Pakistan-China friendship”.
Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States Tariq Fatemi said the visit was crucial in drawing the economic roadmap for the incoming government.
“Normally foreign visitors don’t go to countries during the interim setups, but China has recognised that the visit to Pakistan is necessary even at this stage, and that is why they have organised a separate one-on-one meeting with Nawaz Sharif,” Fatemi said.
The PML-N faces a daunting array of problems: a bloody Islamist militancy, sluggish economic growth, high inflation, a crumbling currency, the threat of a balance of payments crisis and crippling electricity shortages.
Zardari, whose position as president looks under threat after the PML-N thumped his Pakistan People’s Party at the polls, said he was committed to deepening Pakistan-China ties.
“I am confident that the new democratic government will further strive to promote Pak-China relations especially people-to-people contacts,” he said.
There are an estimated 10,000 Chinese people and more than 120 Chinese companies in Pakistan, many working on infrastructure and energy projects. Beijing built two nuclear power plants in the country and is contracted to construct two more reactors.
In February Beijing took control of Pakistan’s port of Gwadar, which through an expanded Karakoram Highway could connect China to the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz, a gateway for a third of the world’s traded oil.
Li will address a special session of the Pakistani senate, the upper house of parliament, and the two sides are expected to sign memorandums of understanding on economic, energy and science issues.
Li arrived in Pakistan after a visit to arch-rival India, where he promised to open China’s vast domestic market wider to India and forge a “dynamic trade balance” with the South Asian giant.
His tour will takes him on to Europe for visits to Switzerland, with which China is negotiating a free trade agreement, and Germany, its largest European trading partner.