ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – China's president signed a five-year free trade pact with Pakistan on Friday, promised to continue joint development of nuclear energy and pledged to play a "constructive" role in resolving disputes between Pakistan and neighboring rival India.
The announcements came a day after Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in the Pakistani capital following a trip to India. The South Asia tour is seen as a way for the region's most populous nation to raise its profile and bolster trade, economic, and military ties in a sometimes unstable region.
Pakistan and China signed 18 economic, social and defense deals, topped by a free trade agreement and a five-year pact to boost "trade relations, joint ventures and investment opportunities in Pakistan," Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said at a joint press conference.
In contrast with Hu's staid reception in India, the Chinese leader described Beijing's ties with long-time ally Pakistan as "higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Indian Ocean and sweeter than honey."
He applauded Musharraf's push to embrace "enlightened moderation" as a way of softening Pakistan's hardline Muslim image and made veiled criticism of outside interference from the West.
"One should not make irresponsible remarks about the internal affairs of other countries simply because of differences," Hu said while addressing a later gathering of dignitaries. "It is equally wrong to blame a particular civilization, nation or religion for some problems or conflicts in the world."
Hu said economic development would lead to regional stability and forecast expanded trade between China and Pakistan, which last year alone grew 39 percent to US$4.26 billion.
The new free trade deal is expected to more than triple bilateral trade to US$15 billion, said Salman Bashir, Pakistan's envoy to China.
"Within five years, trade between the two countries will be completely tariff free," Pakistani Commerce Minister Hummayon Akhtar told reporters. "Under the FTA, we will start reducing tariffs straight away."
Hu, the first Chinese leader to visit Pakistan in a decade, also said Beijing would continue to help Pakistan produce nuclear power.
China already provided funding and expertise to help build a 300-megawatt nuclear power station in 1999 at Chashma in the eastern province of Punjab. Last April, the two countries began building a second nuclear power plant near the first one.
"In the future we will continue to carry out such cooperation," Hu told reporters.
Pakistan's dispute with India over the divided territory of Kashmir has sparked two of three wars between the neighbors since 1947, and China's Hu said his country would play a "constructive" role in resolving such conflicts.
During Hu's visit, Pakistan and China also agreed on long-term collaboration and co-development in aircraft manufacturing and related fields including AWACS, the Pakistan Air Force said.
A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in Islamabad between Pakistan Air Force and a Chinese aviation company, CETC, for the improvement and further development of Chinese Airborne Early Warning System.
Pakistan Air Force is already collaborating with another Chinese aviation company, CATIC, for the co-development and co-production of JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft. The JF-17s are expected to be delivered to Pakistan during 2007.
Pakistan and China have long been close allies, and Beijing has helped Islamabad develop its infrastructure, including building a nuclear power plant and a deep-sea port in the Arabian Sea town of Gwadar.