BEIJING (AP) -- China and Pakistan set their sights Friday on developing a transport link from northwestern China through rugged Pakistani mountains to the Arabian Sea, a route they hope will boost economic growth and slash shipping times.
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 transport link was described as a "long-term plan" to connect the Chinese city of Kashgar to the port of Gwadar, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) away across the towering Karakoram mountains and Pakistan's lawless Baluchistan province.
Another agreement will see a fiber optic cable laid from the Chinese border to the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi that 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.
The visit is Sharif's first to his country's close ally since he returned to power last month, highlighting the importance Pakistan places on its 63-year-old relationship with China. 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 usually effusive language with which the two nations describe their relationship.
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.
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.
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 Company 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.
Located just outside the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Gwadar has the potential of vastly cutting the 12,000-kilometer (7,500-mile) route that Mideast oil supplies must now take to reach Chinese ports. It could also provide an outlet for copper and other resources that Chinese firms 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 that runs through the northwestern Xinjiang region to the Pakistan border 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.