Imran jets off to China on two-day visit

China's President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) ahead of their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 2, 2018. (Photo by THOMAS PETER / POOL / AFP)

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan departed for China on Monday on a two-day official visit in order to discuss issues of regional and bilateral importance with the Chinese leadership.

According to his schedule, the premier will hold separate meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang wherein he will discuss the expansion of projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and cooperation in the agriculture, industrial and socio-economic sectors.

Prime Minister Imran’s visit to China acquires significance as it comes days ahead of President Xi’s planned high-profile visit to India to take part in the 2nd informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi next week.

Tensions over Kashmir have risen drastically since August when New Delhi revoked the autonomy of its portion of the territory, which both India and Pakistan rule in part and claim in full.

Pakistan expelled India’s ambassador and suspended bilateral trade soon after and Khan launched an international diplomacy campaign in an attempt to draw global condemnation of India’s treatment of Kashmiris.

China, which also holds a thinly populated high-altitude area of Kashmir and has a longstanding dispute over the border with India, called New Delhi’s actions “unacceptable”.

“The visit will be instrumental in further cementing Pakistan’s economic, investment and strategic ties with China,” said the statement from Khan’s office.

“The Prime Minister will exchange views the state of peace and security in South Asia arising from the situation in occupied Jammu & Kashmir.”

Last week, Prime Minister Imran said that the removal of all bottlenecks in CPEC projects and their timely completion was the top priority of the government.

Some officials and observers have said momentum on CPEC projects is slowing, in part due to concerns over the size of Pakistan’s debt and struggling economy, which led Islamabad to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a $6 billion bailout package in July.

In a news conference on Sunday, Pakistan’s Khusro Bakhtiar, Minister for Planning, Development and Planning, denied there had been any slowdown in CPEC projects.

“(There’s) a narrative being built up that they have become slow; I reject it, it’s totally wrong,” he said.

Bakhtiar also said the Beijing visit would include talks on the ML-1 railway, one CPEC project which has stalled due to questions over funding.

Reports emerged a day earlier that the prime minister is expected to offer the management of cash-strapped Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM) to China amid continuous losses. 

“The government is exploring different options including G2G (government-to-government) deal with China as the government cannot absorb losses on a consistent basis,” a publication said citing sources, adding that overall accumulated losses of once the most profitable state-owned entity, the PSM, soared to Rs220 billion.

During the premier’s visit, the two sides will also discuss the “immediate implementation” of the second phase of the China-Pakistan free trade agreement (FTA). They will also discuss the abolition of the quota for all Pakistani agro products.

The prime minister is also expected to address the Pak-China Business Forum in Beijing and to meet with Chinese entrepreneurs as well as the heads of different companies.

This is the premier’s third visit to China in less than a year.

In April, he visited Beijing to attend the second Belt and Road Forum and for talks with the Chinese leadership on the expanded CPEC. His first official visit had come in November last year.

Khan’s visit comes before the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is due to decide whether Pakistan’s efforts to clamp down on terror financing are sufficient for it to avoid being placed on a ‘black list’ of nations that includes Iran and North Korea.

China is one of 39 FATF members. The government did not say whether Khan’s trip would address the issue.