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Chinese President To Discuss Massive Trade Route During Pakistan Visit


The sound of gunfire will echo around the capital of Pakistan tomorrow. For once, it has nothing to do with that country's battle with the Taliban. It will be a 21-gun salute honoring China's president, Xi Jinping. President Xi is arriving in Islamabad for a two-day state visit. It has great significance for the entire region and beyond. NPR's Philip Reeves joins us on the line from Pakistan. Philip, explain - why does this matter?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, as you know, China's increasingly reaching out across the world in search of energy supplies. This visit is about pushing ahead with a massive project that links China with a port in Pakistan. That port, Gwadar, is on the shores of the Arabian Sea, by the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It's a gateway to the Middle East, which has much of the world's oil reserves. And the plan is to create a corridor that runs south-north, right across Pakistan, to the border with western China, up in the Himalayas, with a network of roads and rail links and pipelines. And China is planning to invest tens of billions of dollars into this, and during this visit, President Xi is expected to ink various agreements connected with it.

RATH: So is this all about China getting access to larger energy reserves?

REEVES: Yes. This provides China with a - you know, a direct and far, far shorter route to the oil and gas reserves of the Middle East and also Africa. And it's also of considerable geopolitical significance for another reason. China's been developing various ports around Asia. And China-watchers call these the string of pearls. They say it's a strategy by China to expand its maritime influence and to straddle key trade routes. And Gwadar Port is close to the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world's oil travels. The port's actually owned by Pakistan, but it's operated by a state-owned Chinese company and is still under development. So it gives China an important toehold in a very important place.

RATH: But, Philip, what about the instability in Pakistan? Isn't there a risk that traffic along this corridor to China will be disrupted by violence?

REEVES: Yes, there are plenty of people out there who can cause a lot of problems. There are nationalists insurgents, there's the Taliban, and there's political volatility. President Xi was planning to come here a few months back, but postponed because the center of Islamabad, the capital, was occupied by thousands of opposition demonstrators. But, you know, this route and its importance gives both China and Pakistan an incentive - an extra incentive - to stabilize Pakistan.

RATH: Now, Pakistan is obviously for a vital strategic importance for the United States. Does the rise of China's influence in Pakistan mean less influence for the U.S.?

REEVES: Well, it's not a zero-sum game. The relationship between China and Pakistan is close. It goes back decades. It's far less volatile than Pakistan's relations with the U.S., which have gone through some very bad patches, particularly when Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan. And when things go bad with Washington, it is true that the Pakistanis tend to play up their relationship with China to kind of indicate that they have other powerful friends. But the American relationship is unlikely to be significantly affected by this, and this relationship with China has been going on a very long time.

RATH: NPR's Philip Reeves in Karachi. Philip, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome. 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.