China and Pakistan set their sights Friday on developing a transport link through rugged mountains and lawless 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 "economic corridor" was among eight pacts signed following a meeting in Beijing between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) transport link was described as a "long-term plan" to connect Kashgar in northwestern China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, likely by road in the beginning and possibly by rail later.
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 Muslim Uighur minority who have taken refuge in Pakistan's northwest alongside al-Qaida-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 fiber-optic cable to be laid from the Chinese border to the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi which will boost Pakistan's access to international communications networks. China is to provide 85 percent of the financing for the three-year project's $44 million budget, with Pakistan covering the rest.
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 defense affairs, and share a common rival in their mutual neighbor and occasional military opponent India.
"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," Sharif told Li 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 Afghan-led peace effort in the country following the withdrawal of U.S. troops next year. It said they would "work with the regional countries and the international community to help Afghanistan achieve peace, stability and security."
China provides Pakistan with aid and foreign investment, while Islamabad offers Beijing important diplomatic backing in the face of Muslim-majority nations who might otherwise criticize China's handling of its Muslim population.
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 China's state-owned China Overseas Ports Holding Co. Ltd. in February. Built by Chinese workers and opened in 2007, it is undergoing a major expansion to turn it into a full-fledged, deep water commercial port.
The statement said a joint committee will be set up that will oversee the upgrading and realigning of the 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) Karakoram highway running from Kashgar to the Pakistani town of Abbottabad over mountain passes as high as 4,693 meters (15,397 feet).
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 the lawless Baluchistan province in Paksitan and the rugged Karakoram mountains. Such a link would vastly cut the 12,000-kilometer (7,500-mile) route that Mideast oil supplies must now take to reach Chinese ports.
Gwadar could also provide an outlet for copper and other resources that Chinese companies plan to mine in Afghanistan, while offering a base for China's navy to operate in the Indian Ocean in competition with India.
China has already begun upgrading the Karakoram highway and has dispatched workers to develop projects high in the mountains of the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir.
The geographical and security challenges to the link remain daunting, however, and any working link is likely many years away. It would go through territory menaced by the Pakistani Taliban, while nationalists in Baluchistan view it as an attempt by the ethnic Punjabis who largely run Pakistan to strengthen their control over the desert region and plunder its natural resources.
While the idea of pipeline and rail links is receiving more credence than when first proposed several years ago, the reality on the ground will rule out any big changes for the time being, said Andrew Small, an expert on China-Pakistan relations at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C.
"None of the long-term security questions have gone away and continue to bring the project's viability into question," Small said. "Basic things like infrastructure still need to be accomplished. That alone isn't going to be a game-changer."