ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan said on Saturday it wanted China to build it a naval base, in the latest sign of moves to strengthen ties with Beijing as relations with Washington falter.
The announcement from Pakistan’s defense minister came a day after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani returned from a four-day visit to China, Islamabad’s biggest arms supplier.
“We would be ... grateful to the Chinese government if a naval base is ... constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan,” Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar said is a statement, referring to a deep-water port in Pakistan’s southwest.
The statement did not say whether Pakistan had asked China to build the base at the port in Baluchistan province.
Islamabad is trying to deepen ties with Beijing as relations with the United States have come under strain following the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan this month.
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.
China invested $200 million in the first phase of the construction of the port, which was inaugurated in 2007.
The development, 70 km (45 miles) east of the Iranian border and on the doorstep of Gulf shipping lanes, was designed to handle transhipment traffic for the Gulf.
Mukhtar said the Chinese government had agreed to take operational control of Gwadar port once a contract with Singapore’s PSA International Ltd expired in around 35 years’ time.
During Gilani’s visit, Mukhtar said China had agreed to speed up the delivery of 50 multi-role combat JF-17 “Thunder” aircraft, each worth up to $25 million.
The close ties between China and Pakistan reflect long-standing shared wariness of their common neighbor India and a desire to hedge against U.S. influence across the region.
Editing by Andrew Heavens