February 20, 2006

Pakistan committed to strong China ties: Musharraf

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on
Monday expressed his nation's regret over the murder of three
Chinese engineers in Pakistan and said his country was
committed to strong relations with Beijing.

The February 15 attack west of Karachi was by a handful of
terrorists who "do not want Pakistan to develop and also do not
want Pakistan and China relations to develop," Musharraf said.

He told Wu Bangguo, the chairman of China's National
People's Congress, of his "nation's regret and condolences over
this very sad incident."

The killings have cast a pall over the five-day state
visit, which began on Sunday. But Musharraf is eager to extend
economic and strategic links with Beijing when India's growing
ties with China have created uncertainty, analysts said.

China has repeatedly stressed its swiftly developing trade
and political links with India, with which China fought a brief
border war in 1962, do not come at the expense of Pakistan, its
traditional partner in the region.

But the growing rapport between Beijing and New Delhi had
stirred Islamabad to seek more assurance from Beijing, said
Zhang Li, an expert on China-South Asian relations at Sichuan
University in Western China.

"We shouldn't avoid the fact that Pakistan has some
misgivings about China's strategy in South Asia, and we need to
strengthen mutual confidence," he said.

Chinese officials will present Musharraf those assurances
through a series of agreements covering telecommunications,
health, education and energy.

Pakistan and China aim to lift trade between them to $8
billion by 2008, and are also discussing a free trade
agreement. Trade between the two countries rose to $4.25
billion in 2005 from $3.06 billion a year earlier.

"China's broad strategic objective is to develop friendly,
multi-dimensional ties with all countries in South Asia," said
John Garver, an expert on China's role in the region at the
U.S.-based Georgia Institute of Technology.

"Beijing doesn't want to have to choose sides."


Musharraf and his Chinese hosts may also discuss greater
cooperation in security and Pakistan's plans to expand its
nuclear power, said Zhang.

India has signed a civilian nuclear agreement with the
United States. China is helping Pakistan build the Chashma II
nuclear power plant, and Musharraf could send a message to
Washington that it has other partners by turning to China for
more nuclear power technology, said analysts.

"I'm sure Pakistan would prefer it was engineers from China
wandering around its reactors rather than engineers from the
U.S.," said Garver.

China would be looking for assurances as well, said
observers. The murder of the three engineers is the latest of a
series of such attacks that have provoked unease about China
being dragged into Pakistan's religious and political tensions,
they said.

China also wants to ensure that its interest in Pakistan's
potential as a strategic stepping stone to the Middle East and
its energy supplies is not submerged by the U.S. presence
there, analysts said.

China has helped Pakistan deepen its port at Gwadar in
southern Pakistan, with the work due to finish later this year.

On Monday, Musharraf also pressed the secretary-general of
the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Zhang Deguang, to hasten
Pakistan's rise from observer status to full member of the
central Asian security group, said Pakistani diplomats.

(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim)