China's president hails trade pact with Pakistan

(AFP) - Chinese President Hu Jintao and his Pakistan counterpart Pervez Musharraf oversaw the signing of a landmark free trade deal and vowed to take the allies' strategic relationship to new heights.

The two countries also agreed to cooperate on an airborne radar system and inked a slew of pacts on defence and the economy, while Hu said Beijing would continue to help Pakistan's nuclear power programme, reports Trend.

Officials said the trade agreement could triple bilateral trade to 15 billion dollars within five years in a key move for both the Asian economic giant and its fast-developing neighbour, reports Trend.

"This serves the fundamental interests of our two peoples and is also conducive to the peace and development of our region," Hu told a news conference after hour-long talks with Musharraf on Friday.

"We want to work with Pakistan to raise our strategic ties to a new level," added the Chinese leader, the first to visit this Islamic republic for a decade.

Hu later addressed the 150-million-strong nation live on state TV, becoming the only foreigner given the privilege since US President Bill Clinton in 2000. Musharraf also presented him with Pakistan's highest civilian award.

The Chinese president arrived in Pakistan Thursday from a landmark trip to New Delhi and Mumbai, during which he pledged to double trade with Pakistan's arch rival India.

Musharraf, whose country is keen to reinforce its 55-year-old ties with Beijing amid concern India and China are becoming increasingly close, said the "evergreen relationship of Pakistan and China will remain for all time".

The presidents watched their ministers of commerce ink the trade pact and other accords, including a separate five-year development programme, which the Chinese news agency Xinhua said was the first of its kind for Beijing.

They also agreed to set up a joint investment company.

But while Hu said that Beijing would carry on cooperating with Pakistan's nuclear power industry -- China has built one reactor here and is helping to construct another -- he did not announce any new deal.

Pakistani officials had earlier dismissed "speculative" reports that China would unveil a major new atomic agreement with Pakistan similar to one made between its arch-rival India and the United States earlier this year.

Asked about Pakistan's strained relationship with India due to the half-century dispute over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir, Hu said that a peaceful resolution would benefit the whole region.

"South Asian countries are close neighbours to China. As a neighbour to both, China sincerely hopes peace and stability to be maintained on the subcontinent," Hu told the news conference.

Separately, Pakistan's air force said it had agreed with China to jointly develop aircraft equipped with long-range early warning radars. "The same may be delivered to Pakistan in coming years," it said in a statement.

Beijing remains Islamabad's largest arms supplier and the two are jointly developing the JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft. China has also invested millions of dollars in a deep sea port in southwest Pakistan to access the Arabian Sea.

Pakistan's ambassador to Beijing, Salman Bashir, told state media Thursday that bilateral trade should hit 15 billion dollars within five years of implementation of the free trade pact.

Last year, trade between China and Pakistan grew by 39 percent to 4.26 billion dollars compared with 2004, according to Chinese commerce ministry statistics.

Hu and Musharraf are also expected to inaugurate a special economic zone in Lahore when the Chinese leader travels to the historic eastern city on Saturday. He is scheduled to leave for Beijing the following day.

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