ISLAMABAD — Pakistan calls China its "all-weather" friend — an ally that offers consistent, no-strings-attached support during turbulent times. However, the reality is a more complicated mix of economics, security and self-interest — complexities that will be on display during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's three day-visit to Pakistan starting Friday.
Islamabad has been grappling with an Islamist insurgency as well as political and economic turmoil in recent years, and Wen's trip — the first by a Chinese premier in five years — provides Pakistan with a rare occasion to play host to a foreign leader. Large banners welcoming Wen were posted along main thoroughfares in the Pakistani capital Friday morning, with some featuring the premier's picture and Chinese-language lettering.
The visit will focus on investment and bilateral trade, but will also be used to showcase ties between the Asian neighbors that have endured and even flourished despite Beijing's drawing closer to Islamabad's archrival India.
China is Pakistan's closest friend in the region, giving Islamabad military aid and technical assistance, including nuclear technology. Crucially, it is perceived by many here as not distinguishing between Pakistan and India and — unlike Islamabad's so-called "fair-weather" friends in Washington — doesn't demand anything in return for assistance.
"There is the view that the U.S. is just here for a short period of time and that they do not have long-term interests," said Hamayoun Khan, a former researcher at the China Studies Center at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. "Whereas China has a very long-term interest with Pakistan and they will always stay with Pakistan because they are your neighbor."
While China doesn't make the conditional demands the U.S. does in its relationship with Islamabad, Beijing is not left empty-handed from its ties with Pakistan. The country serves as China's gateway to the Muslim world, and is a close and cheap source of natural resources to fuel its growing economy.
"China sees Pakistan as a useful partner in a difficult and violent region, as a potential buffer against more extreme elements in the Muslim world, and — looking to a more distant future — a useful geographic outlet to the Arabian Sea for China's western provinces," said Daniel Markey, an analyst on South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
In recent years, Pakistan's strategic importance to the United States has soared because of its role in fighting militants along the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan's rugged tribal regions are also where Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding.
While Washington has showered Islamabad with aid, attention and occasional threats, China has been forging stronger relations with India, a fellow rising Asian power.
But China's improved ties with India are unlikely to have much influence on relations between Islamabad and Beijing, analysts said.
"Pakistan understands that China's relationship with India is also necessary and is good in a way because it can have a stabilizing effect on the region," said Talat Masood, an analyst and former Pakistani general. "I think Pakistan is quite realistic about it."
India looms large in both countries' calculations. Pakistan sees China as an ally that will take its side in any dispute with India, with which Islamabad has fought three wars since 1948. China sees New Delhi's preoccupation with Pakistan as a hedge against a growing economic competitor.
Pakistan is desperate for foreign investment to help create jobs for its 175 million people, and Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said a push for greater business links will be a big part of Wen's visit.
"Lately we have been trying to expand the scope of this relationship because our economic and trade relations do not really depict or portray the strength of our political relationship," he said. "Our bilateral trade is close to $7 billion, which is nothing."Comment on this story
While that number is up from $1 billion in 2000, much of the new trade consists of cheap Chinese imports into Pakistan. Islamabad will be looking for ways to balance that.
Pakistan believes China can help with a pressing need: providing electricity for its people.
Islamabad has agreed in principle to a controversial deal to purchase two nuclear reactors from China, and the two countries are working out the financial details. Beijing sees Pakistan as a future energy corridor due to its proximity to natural gas-rich Central Asian states, as well as a link to the Arabian Sea, analysts said.
As with any discussions involving Pakistan, security issues will also be on the agenda. The threat posed by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Pakistan is a growing concern for China given the countries' proximity, the presence of many hundreds of Chinese workers in Pakistan and China's own Muslim separatist movement in its western Xinjiang region.