A handover ceremony of a batch of China-donated COVID-19 vaccine is held at Noor Khan Air Base near Islamabad, Pakistan, Feb. 1, 2021. (Photo/Xinhua)
Since President Xi's trip in 2015, ties with China have continued to flourish
Seven years have passed, but Pakistan's Ambassador to China Moin ul Haque still remembers all the details of the preparations his team made to welcome the historic visit of President Xi Jinping.
"Pakistan's capital city, Islamabad, was transformed and decorated, with special illumination in many parts of the city," said Haque, then chief of protocol of Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"Flags, beautiful slogans and huge billboards bearing portraits of the two countries' leaders lined the streets. The city looked very festive."
Signboards in both Chinese and English said, "Pakistan-China friendship is higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel." Other slogans included "Long live the Pakistan-China friendship" and "Pakistan and China are iron friends".
Pakistan's Air Force had deployed an escort of eight JF-17 Thunder fighter jets, jointly made by the two countries, when Xi's aircraft entered the country's airspace, Haque said.
"This was unprecedented－it was only for President Xi that we had such a great reception."
The visit, from April 20 to 21,2015, was Xi's first state visit to Pakistan.
"To ensure everything went well, we held many rehearsals for different occasions," Haque said. For instance, he asked Pakistan International Airlines to supply the same model of aircraft in which Xi would fly for use in a rehearsal of the arrival ceremony, including where it would stop and where government officials and hundreds of students from various schools would stand to welcome Xi.
"President Xi is greatly admired in Pakistan, as a statesman, a visionary leader and someone who has served his people and follows a people-centric approach," Haque said.
The people of Pakistan laud China's "great miracle" of eradicating absolute poverty and lifting nearly 800 million people out of poverty since reform and opening-up began in the late 1970s, he said.
Pakistanis also appreciate Xi's commitment to the two countries' friendship.
"During that visit, we were really touched by his words and speeches about this important relationship and how he saw its future."
China and Pakistan upgraded their relationship during the visit to an all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation.
"China and Pakistan have always trusted, understood and supported each other, and are all-weather friends," Xi said. "The Chinese side highly values its relationship with Pakistan and has always placed the relationship in a priority position in its foreign policy agenda."
The upgrade of bilateral relations came as the two countries were gearing up for an expansion of collaboration in various fields, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative, high on the agenda.
The corridor is a planned network of roads, railways and energy projects linking deep-water Gwadar Port in southwest Pakistan with the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in Northwest China.
On the same day, the two countries signed 51 agreements and memorandums of understanding focusing on the areas of energy, transportation infrastructure, industry and the development of Gwadar Port. More than 30 agreements were designed to give impetus to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
During Xi's visit, he addressed a joint session of Pakistan's Parliament and conferred friendship awards on Pakistani individuals and groups, commending the unremitting contribution they had made to promoting the friendship between the two countries. Xi also planted a China-Pakistan Friendship Tree on the lawn of the prime minister's residence in Islamabad.
Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chairman of the Pakistani Senate's Defense Committee and a representative of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), said that "it was a matter of great honor and privilege" that Xi had presented him with the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence Friendship Award in Islamabad.
"It was a very gracious gesture by the relaxed and smiling president and global statesman when he extended his firm handshake with these warm words of appreciation: 'Congratulations, thank you for your contributions to friendship between China and Pakistan.'"
Xi's visit had historic significance for the bilateral relationship and lifted it to a higher level, Haque said. The all-weather strategic cooperative partnership of cooperation means that the China-Pakistan relationship has stood the test of time, he said, and is an "iron brotherhood" enjoying support across the political spectrum and covering every aspect of the relationship, from political to defense, security, trade, investment, culture and global issues.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, "which was high on the agenda, has become a game changer that has really transformed the economic landscape of Pakistan over the past few years", Haque said. Its projects have upgraded the country's infrastructure, such as roads, highways and fiber-optic communication networks.
"This is extremely important, because without proper modern infrastructure one cannot have economic development," Haque added.
Many energy projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor have helped address Pakistan's acute energy shortages, he said.
Gwadar Port, seen as the crown jewel of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, has become a modern functional port, after once having been a small fishing village. Around the port, a free trade zone has been built, with ancillary facilities including schools, hospitals and a new airport. More industrial plants are being built there, he said.
"The construction of the port will not only help the local people improve their livelihood, but will also benefit trade links between our two countries as well as connectivity with the Central Asian region," Haque said.
Pakistan's embassy in Beijing said the economic corridor has created 75,000 jobs in Pakistan, and the project accounts for 1 to 2 percent of the country's GDP each year.
Pakistan's annual plan for 2022-23 says the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor strongly emphasizes industrialization, agricultural modernization and scientific and technological development. The goal is to reap the dividends of investment made in the first phase (2015-20) in transportation and energy infrastructure projects.
Talat Shabbir, director of the China-Pakistan Study Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, said the essence of the second phase is industrial collaboration. A priority is for four special economic zones to be established. These have been initiated to strengthen the industrial sector, promote trade, generate employment and boost Pakistan's economic growth, Shabbir said.
"The fundamental problem in Pakistan's economy is that it lags far behind in industrial development, which has resulted in more imports than exports," he said. "No doubt, the industrial cooperation shall render great help to revive Pakistan's fragile economy."
Shabbir added that China "has advantages in experience, technology, financing and industrial capacity, while Pakistan enjoys favorable conditions in natural resources, adequate manpower, quality infrastructure and access to international markets".
Mehmood Ul Hassan Khan, director of the Center for South Asia &International Studies in Islamabad, said the country's notable GDP increase as a result of infrastructure investment will help lift 1.1 million people out of extreme poverty by 2030.
Makhdoom Babar, president of the Daily Mail Pakistan and chairman of the Pakistan Institute of China Studies, said the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being successfully implemented, and the completion of energy, industrial, connectivity and socioeconomic aspects will "change the socioeconomic landscape of underdeveloped areas in Pakistan".