UPDATE 1-China says unaware of Pakistan naval port proposal

BEIJING Tue May 24, 2011 7:33am EDT

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BEIJING May 24 (Reuters) - China said on Tuesday it had not heard of Pakistan's proposal for Beijing to help it build a naval port, pouring cold water on a plan that would likely stoke regional jitters about the two countries' relationship.

Pakistani Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar said on Saturday that his government wanted China to build it a naval base at the deep water port of Gwadar, in the latest sign of moves to bolster ties with Beijing after strains with Washington over the U.S. operation that killed Osama bin Laden. [ID:nSGE74K005]

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani visited China last week, and both sides vowed to maintain their "all-weather friendship", which many analysts see as a shared hedge against U.S. and Indian influence.

But on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said she had no knowledge beforehand of the naval port proposal and it had not been discussed during Gilani's visit.

"China and Pakistan are friendly neighbours. Regarding the specific China-Pakistan cooperative project that you raised, I have not heard of it," Jiang told a regular news conference in Beijing.

"It's my understanding that during the visit last week this issue was not touched upon," she added later.

"For a long time China has done its utmost to provide help to Pakistan and we hope this can help improve the livelihood of the Pakistani people and promote economic and social development, and we will continue doing this," she said.

Analysts say Mukhtar's statement seemed to be aimed at showing the United States that Pakistan had a diplomatic alternative in its old ally Beijing if its ties with Washington faltered.

"The target audience of this statement was the United States," said Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia director for global intelligence firm STRATFOR.

"The statement served the purpose to tell the United States that it has other options as well. (But) Americans know the Pakistanis are unhappy right now and they are posturing."

Many in Washington have called for a review of billions of dollars of U.S. aid to Pakistan after discovering bin Laden had been hiding for years in a Pakistani garrison town.

But Beijing has not publicly criticised Islamabad over bin Laden and has instead praised its contribution to regional security.

China invested $200 million in the first phase of the construction of the Gwadar port, which was inaugurated in 2007. The port is on the doorstep of Gulf shipping lanes.

When Gilani first addressed the nation about bin Laden's death, he took the opportunity to praise China, which is much more popular with Pakistani people than the United States. [ID:nL3E7G90N5]

In the end, though, Pakistan's government and military rely too deeply on U.S. security and economic aid to imperil that alliance, analysts in both Beijing and Islamabad have said.

Nor does Beijing want to wade deeply into volatile Pakistani politics, risking its own interests and alienating India, a big but wary trade partner, they said. (Reporting by Michael Martina and Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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