Chinese premier Li Keqiang has arrived in Pakistan for a two-day visit where he will meet prime minister-elect Nawaz Sharif, as the long-time allies look to boost trade ties.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party swept to victory in the May 11 general election on a promise to revitalise the struggling economy and help from its giant neighbour to the north will be important to this.
Trade between China and Pakistan hit a 12-month figure of $12bn for the first time last year, according to Islamabad, up 18 percent on the previous year, and the two sides are committed to raising this to $15bn in the next two to three years.
Li, on his first overseas tour as premier, will hold talks with president Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister on Wednesday, before meeting Sharif on Thursday.
Tariq Fatemi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, said the visit was crucial in drawing up 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 told the AFP news agency.
The PML-N faces a daunting array of problems, including a bloody fight with armed groups, sluggish economic growth, high inflation, a crumbling currency, the threat of a balance of payments crisis and crippling electricity shortages.
There are an estimated 10,000 Chinese people and more than 120 Chinese companies in Pakistan, many working on infrastructure and energy projects.
China has built two nuclear power plants there and is contracted to construct two more reactors.
In February, Beijing also took control of Pakistan’s strategic port of Gwadar, which through an expanded Karakoram Highway could connect China to the Arabian Sea and Strait of Hormuz, a gateway for a third of the world’s traded oil.
Li arrives in Pakistan after a visit to its arch-rival India, where he promised to open China’s vast domestic market wider and forge a “dynamic trade balance” with the south Asian giant.
After Pakistan, Li’s tour takes him to Europe, where he will visit Switzerland, with which China is negotiating a free trade agreement, and Germany, its largest trading partner on the continent.