BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s President Xi Jinping will visit Pakistan this year in what will be the first trip by a Chinese head of state to its western neighbor in nine years, as Beijing looks to take a bigger role in South Asia.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the announcement on Thursday in Pakistan’s capital, where he spoke of the two countries’ “all-weather” friendship.
During his two-day visit to Pakistan, Wang also offered to help in mediating stalled efforts to engage the Afghan Taliban in peace negotiations, reflecting China’s desire to play a more active role in a region it sees as part of its sphere of influence.
Afghanistan and its Western backers have been trying to bring Taliban figures to the negotiating table to end years of war in the country. Pakistan is key to the process because of its historic ties to the Taliban leaders, who have used the Pakistani border region as a safe haven.
Those concerns have become more pressing as Washington is trying to wind down the role of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which were sent in to topple the Taliban in 2001 but have failed to end their insurgency.
Beijing has its own concerns about Islamist militancy, and as one of Pakistan’s chief allies, has long urged Islamabad to weed out what it says are separatists from China’s western Xinjiang region holed up in a lawless tribal belt on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, home to a mix of militant groups.
Xi was scheduled to go to Pakistan last year, but the trip was postponed due to anti-government protests in Pakistan.
“Wang Yi said President Xi Jinping will make a state visit to Pakistan at the earliest possible date this year,” a statement posted to the Foreign Ministry’s website late on Thursday said.
“This will be President Xi’s first visit to Pakistan as head of state, and the first visit by a Chinese president in nine years,” Wang said, adding that China and Pakistan are “iron-clad pals and true friends”.
“This is not a dictate from heaven nor was it achieved in a single day. It illustrates how bilateral relations have weathered the trials of history and established a high degree of mutual understanding, trust and assistance,” Wang said.
Since taking office in 2013, Xi has pushed the idea of a Silk Road Economic Belt that would connect China to South Asia and Central Asia with roads, railways, ports and airports.
Last year, Xi visited India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Jeremy Laurence