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Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Tuesday emphasised that Pakistan’s all-weather relationship with China was “unshakable” as he embarked on a five-day official visit to Beijing to further bolster bilateral ties and to launch the second phase of the multi-billion dollar CPEC projects in his country.

Sharif will be in China from June 4 to 8 at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The 72-year-old leader embarked on his first visit to China after he took over as prime minister for the second term after his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party-led coalition government assumed power in March.

During his visit, Sharif will hold talks with Chinese President Xi and “jointly draw a blueprint” for the growth of China-Pakistan relations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in Beijing last week.

During Sharif’s visit, the two countries are expected to launch the second phase of the USD 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The CPEC, which connects Gwadar Port in Pakistan’s Balochistan with China’s Xinjiang province, is the flagship project of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is seen as an attempt by China to further its influence abroad with infrastructure projects funded by Chinese investments across the world.

In an interview with Chinese media here ahead of his visit, Sharif said that the two countries are “iron brothers” and their friendship is unshakable.

“We are two iron brothers, our friendship is unshakable and our hearts beat together,” Sharif was quoted as saying by Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency.

“Despite the hot weather, it still doesn’t match the warmth of our hearts,” the prime minister said.

He asserted that China has supported Pakistan through the difficult times, and Islamabad considers Beijing as one of the “most trusted friends” around the globe.

Sharif said that on his first visit to China about 40 years ago, he noticed that though underdeveloped, the country was dedicated to meeting the basic needs of its people while vigorously developing modern science and technology.

“Today, China has become a giant through vision, hard work, and serious and untiring efforts,” he said.

“All doubts about the Chinese model have been rubbished by the evidence of history,” he added.

He said that Pakistan is willing to promote economic cooperation with China, learn from Beijing’s advanced experience in information technology and artificial intelligence, consolidate the ironclad friendship between the two countries, and achieve leapfrog development.

Pakistan is also ready to learn from China’s governance experience, deepen reforms and counter-corruption, create enabling circumstances for Chinese investors, and provide policy support for investors, focusing on fields that can benefit both peoples to modernise the economy, he was quoted as saying.

Sharif said that under Xi’s leadership, China has alleviated millions of its people out of poverty. He added that one of the agenda items for his visit is to learn from the Chinese model about how to alleviate poverty in Pakistan and help people stand on their own feet.

Cash-strapped Pakistan’s economy is facing severe headwinds, and it has formally requested the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the next bailout package between USD 6 and USD 8 billion with the possibility of augmentation through climate financing.

On Monday, the Chinese Ambassador in Pakistan, Jiang Zaidong, said that under Sharif and Xi’s guidance and strong support from the people of both countries, Sharif’s visit to China would achieve complete success and become a milestone in the development of China-Pakistan relations.

Highlighting the various components of the visit, he said the prime minister would meet and also have talks with Chinese Premier Li Qiang and the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Zhao Leji.

The leaders will have an in-depth exchange of views on China-Pakistan relations and issues of mutual interest and jointly draw up a blueprint for the growth of bilateral relations, Jiang was quoted as saying by the official Associated Press of Pakistan news agency.

“China stands ready to work with Pakistan through this visit to make greater progress in our all-weather strategic cooperative partnership and take new steps in building an even closer China-Pakistan community with a shared future in the new era,” he said.

Regarding CPEC, Jiang said the landmark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project brought a total of USD 25.4 billion in direct investment, 2,36,000 jobs, 510 km of highways, more than 8000 megawatts of electricity and 886 km of core transmission network, generating a strong impetus to Pakistan’s economic and social development.

Sharif’s visit aims to increase cooperation under the CPEC project as the two all-weather allies look forward to launching its second phase.

He will undertake discussions with top Chinese officials to further upgrade CPEC and advance trade and investment.

The prime minister said that through the visit, Pakistan hopes to promote interaction between enterprises in both countries, utilise special economic zones and Pakistan’s labour advantages to establish joint ventures, facilitate the transfer of industries and technologies, and enhance its manufacturing output to promote upgrading the CPEC.

He said that the proposed BRI benefits people in participating countries, promotes cooperation, and advances the world towards a vision of shared prosperity and a better future, according to the report.

The CPEC was launched a decade ago, and several energy and infrastructure projects have already been completed.

India firmly opposes the CPEC, which will link Xinjiang in China and the Gwadar port in Pakistan because it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

To advance economic ties between the two countries, the prime minister will meet with corporate executives of leading Chinese companies dealing in oil and gas, energy, ICT (Information and Communications Technology), and emerging technologies, the report said.

The talks will be held to enhance cooperation in security and defence, energy, space, science and technology, and education sectors, it said.

Sharif will address the China-Pakistan Business Forum in Shenzhen with leading businesspersons, entrepreneurs, and investors from both countries. He will also visit the Economic and Agricultural Zones in China, it said.

Sharif’s visit to Beijing, which is always a first stop for Pakistani leaders after taking over power, is taking place as Pakistan is facing a severe economic crisis with foreign exchange reserves continuing to remain at a low level. China is bankrolling Pakistan to maintain the balance of payments with periodic loans to maintain the requisite forex reserves.