Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz appears relaxed and genial. He has just been preaching the virtues of his economic reforms to regional financiers at the annual Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference in Hong Kong - a walk in the park for the former Citibank executive. Relaxed is, of course, a relative term in Pakistani politics. Like his boss, President Pervez Musharraf, Mr Aziz has been the target of assassins. While campaigning in July 2004, he was attacked in his car by a suicide bomber in a town near the capital, Islamabad. His chauffeur was killed, along with eight others. There can be few tougher political assignments than being a state leader in Pakistan, given the pressures from Islamic leaders amid the US-led 'war on terror'. Not only is Mr Aziz driving a reform agenda in a once-hidebound economy but, with General Musharraf, he must juggle an alliance with the US and its new ally, Afghanistan. The relationships are dogged by fears that Pakistan is too close to a resurgent Taleban and its al-Qaeda brethren across the border. His visit to Hong Kong comes at a time when tensions are particularly acute. Protests over the suspension of the head of Pakistan's Supreme Court are being seen as General Musharraf's toughest political test since taking power in a military coup in 1999. His dumping of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry threatens to galvanise a previously weak and splintered opposition ahead of elections slated for October. Security surrounding Mr Aziz is tight, even in Hong Kong. Police bomb-sniffing dogs are sent in before he goes anywhere, and visitors are screened. Mr Aziz, 58, eases back and laughs when asked if he ever wishes he is back in the relatively placid waters of international banking. 'Believe me ... we feel totally energised because we feel we are making a difference,' he said. 'We are doing this because we want to make a change ... we have no personal interest, we have no vested interest, our only interest is the national interest. 'Both the president and I work as a team and have this in common; this is what drives us day in and day out ... we feel we are fortunate to have this opportunity to make a difference.' Among the changes closest to his heart are Pakistan's economic reforms. He talks proudly of how his country of 160 million is now one of the fastest growing in the region, with the economy doubling in size in the past five years. Mr Aziz is expecting economic growth to top 7 per cent this financial year, up from 6.6 per cent last year. Predictions for the next five years are for more of the same. Trade and foreign investment are also surging, and Mr Aziz is confident they will record high this year and could come close to US$6 billion. Domestic investment is also rising, he says. He has been at the core of the effort. Lured home from Citigroup in New York in November 1999 shortly after the coup, Mr Aziz served as finance minister before being elevated by General Musharraf to the post of prime minister in 2004. 'The country was in dire straits,' Mr Aziz said of his early days at the financial helm. 'The till was empty, so to say, and we were in a challenging situation. Today, Pakistan is much stronger. 'Pakistan in addition to strong macroeconomic fundamentals has also been regarded as a model for reforms - change is happening in every facet of activity; governance, economic management ... transparency.' The broader economic picture is not enough, he insists, and talks of his ongoing drive to alter Pakistan's thinking from one of heavy state bureaucracy to economic freedom so its full potential can be reached. He uses mobile phones as a favoured anecdote to describe how the wealth is reaching the 'common man'. A year after he thought usage would level off, Pakistan is still adding 1.5 million mobile phones a month. 'How many mobile phones can you use? But it continues because incomes are rising and the wealth is trickling down.' Asked about obstacles ahead, he says he is confident the reform trend cannot be derailed. 'This is where the Pakistan turnaround story is very different. Change is difficult, changing the mindset is what we are talking about,' he said. 'Today it is an open economy, totally liberalised ... we believe in deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation. 'There is no difference in Pakistan between domestic and foreign investment. We have no 'laundry list' ... everything is open.' China is playing its part, too, as investors and trade flow across Pakistan's northern border with the mainland. The two have been long-time strategic diplomatic and military allies - a relationship now buoyed by a free-trade agreement and planned industrial zone for Chinese enterprises under Mr Aziz's watch. 'We expect a lot of Chinese investment,' he said. If the China relationship is a quiet success, Pakistan's relationship with the US is much higher-profile and considerably more problematic. It has an economic and security dimension, given US trade, investment and aid flows have all expanded with the 'war on terror'. It has proved a prickly alliance, with Washington doubting that Pakistan is doing enough to rein in a resurgent Taleban. The Democrat-led US Congress is eyeing the relationship cautiously, and US Vice-President Dick Cheney recently staged a surprise visit to Islamabad to press the administration's concerns. While talking up the 'shared values' that he says define the relationship, Mr Aziz is insistent that Pakistan cannot be blamed for the worsening troubles in Afghanistan, where Nato, US and local troops are struggling to contain this year's spring offensive by Taleban forces. He urges greater attention to a comprehensive Afghan political solution - one that engages the Taleban through dialogue. He also wants greater co-operation across Pakistan's mountainous, if porous, 2,700km border with Afghanistan. The future of an estimated 3 million refugees still in Pakistan is of particular concern. 'We have told ... [President] Hamid Karzai and he agreed the Afghan refugees in Pakistan must go back,' Mr Aziz said. 'We are taking action against these elements who are destabilising Afghanistan and destabilising us too.' More border posts and fences have been created and troop levels are at an all-time high. Pakistani leaders have been forced to defend peace deals with pro-Taleban tribal leaders in border areas. Underpinning those concerns are long-held fears that Pakistan's intelligence services still host conservative elements with close ties to the Taleban. Mr Aziz says al-Qaeda elements are being tracked and he insists Pakistan's interests are best served by a stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbours. 'If there is one country that wants peace, it is us. We pay the highest price ... we are wedded to the problem.' Given the pressures on Pakistan domestically and internationally, it is a mantra the former banker is as now familiar with as international finance. Pakistan is not being pushed into action, Mr Aziz insists. It is committed to the 'war on terrorism' just as it is committed to reform. Shaukat Aziz The Pakistani prime minister is well known in and financial circles in the region after a three-decade career in banking. The 58-year-old grew up in Pakistan's business centre, Karachi, and joined Citibank in 1969 after obtaining a business degree. His career took him through Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and he is well known in Hong Kong from his time as head of corporate and investment banking for the Asia-Pacific region. He also worked for the bank in Malaysia. In the 1990s he was based in New York as executive vice-president heading its global private banking division. He returned home in 1999 as the military leadership sought to launch a new era of economic reform. Having driven liberalisation and privatisation as finance minister, he took on the mantle of prime minister as well in 2004.