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Pakistan president heads to China to boost ties
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari begins his first visit to China on Tuesday to cement economic and commercial ties with Islamabad's long-time ally at a time when its relations with the United States are under stress.
Pakistan is a frontline state in the U.S.-led war on terrorism but the relationship has been strained in recent weeks as U.S. forces in Afghanistan carried out a series of cross-border air raids and at least one ground assault on al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan.
The United States also recently signed a potentially lucrative agreement with India that would allow Pakistan's traditional rival to buy U.S. civil nuclear technology, causing concern in Islamabad, which would like similar treatment.
While Pakistan would continue to act as an ally of the United States, analysts said Zardari's visit to China demonstrates Islamabad's tendency to "Look East" when its ties with the West were strained.
"This visit has symbolic as well as practical importance for Pakistan," political and security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.
"The president will try to get economic investment cooperation from China and at the same time will send a signal that in addition to the West, Pakistan has friends in other parts of the world as well."
A range of agreements is expected to be signed during the visit.
Masood Khan, Pakistan's ambassador to China, said the visit, Zardari's first official bilateral trip, was aimed at strengthening strategic, economic and cultural ties between the two nations.
"Leadership on both sides is determined to build on present strength and come up with a roadmap for their future cooperation," he told Reuters by telephone from Beijing.
China, described as an "all-weather friend", is Pakistan's main supplier of conventional arms and provides hundreds of millions of dollars of development finance.
Analysts believe China has supported Pakistan's missile and nuclear weapons programme for decades, cooperation analysts say is driven by suspicion of their common neighbour, India.
Askari said Pakistan might seek Chinese cooperation in nuclear power generation to meet its acute energy shortages.
China helped develop a 300-megawatt nuclear power plant in the central Punjab province and is assisting in the setting up of another plant with the same capacity, something Washington refuses to do because of the role played by A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, in a nuclear proliferation scandal involving Libya, Iran and North Korea.
China is also helping build Gwadar port on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast in the hope that it could provide a fast route for Middle East supplies.
However, safety of Chinese nationals working is a major cause of concern for China.
Two Chinese telecommunication engineers were kidnapped by militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan on the Afghan border last month. Several Chinese workers have been killed in attacks in western Pakistan.
China has asked Pakistan to ensure safety and security of its nationals in the country.
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