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Chinese President Visits Pakistan To Finalize Billion-Dollar Trade Route Plan


China's President Xi Jinping arrived in Pakistan today for a two-day estate visit. The two neighbors are close allies, but this visit is being billed as a geopolitical game changer. It involves the promise of tens of billions of dollars in investment and a plan to link China to the Middle East via Pakistan. We're joined from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, by NPR's Philip Reeves. And, Phil, what was the scene as President Xi arrived in the capital? This is his first visit to Pakistan.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Yes. It was quite extraordinary. His plane was escorted in by eight Pakistani fighter jet. And all over Islamabad there are these giant, Chinese-style plastic decorations, you know, tulips and huge billboards, also, bearing slogans talking about the Pakistani friendship being higher than mountains, deeper than oceans and sweeter than honey. That's a phrase Pakistanis often use about their friendship with China. So this is a real love-in.

BLOCK: And the plan to turn Pakistan into essentially a big trade route for China, what does that involve exactly?

REEVES: Well, President Xi's today been signing a stack of agreements connected with this. Basically, the plan is to develop a network of rail and road links and pipelines running down from Western China to port of Gwadar on Pakistan's southern coast. Gwadar's operated by a Chinese company, but it belongs to the Pakistani government, and it's on the Arabian Sea, close to the mouth of the Persian Gulf. So this so-called sort of economic corridor across Pakistan would give China a far more direct route to the oil reserves and markets of the Middle East and beyond. And this involves lots of different projects and tens of billions of dollars of Chinese investment.

BLOCK: And is that seen as a realistic plan - something that actually could work?

REEVES: Well, it's been talked about for quite a while, but there is a big gap between rhetoric and reality. Pakistan is, of course, unstable. There are a number of militant groups out there intent on attacking the state. These include the Taliban, but also separatist insurgents in Baluchistan, the province where Gwadar Port's located. Chinese workers have been killed in Pakistan before. Security will undoubtedly be one of the big issues on President Xi's mind.

BLOCK: And is there some expectation that billions of dollars - tens of billions of dollars of Chinese investment in Pakistan could help with stability in that country and in the region?

REEVES: Well, it ought to help. President Xi has been talking, also, about cooperating with Pakistan in the fight against Islamic militancy. China has an interest in doing this. It's worried about the spillover of Islamist militancy into its far West, where there's a restive Muslim Uighur population. And there's evidence that Uighurs have hooked up with Islamist insurgents in Pakistan's tribal belt, and China is worried about that. But it's not just about Pakistan. It's often said there's no peace here in Pakistan unless there's peace in Afghanistan next door. And it's interesting that China's also recently been getting more involved in efforts to breathe life into peace negotiations there. That will be welcome in Washington and in the Pentagon, where there's been a feeling for a while that the Chinese just don't do enough to make the region more secure.

BLOCK: OK, Philip. Thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Philip Reeves talking the state visit by China's President Xi Jinping to Pakistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.