Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted wide-ranging bilateral talks on Wednesday with Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and “expressed his great concern” about the security of Chinese nationals in the long-time South Asian allied country.

Sharif visited Beijing for the first time since assuming office in April. He was one of the first foreign leaders to meet Xi after the Chinese leader secured a historic third term in office last month.

Officials said Xi and Sharif reviewed bilateral cooperation and reaffirmed their commitment to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a Chinese-funded multibillion dollar bilateral project designed to help Islamabad upgrade and expand its economy.

“President Xi expressed his great concern about the safety of Chinese nationals in Pakistan and conveyed his hope that Pakistan will provide a reliable and safe environment for Chinese institutions and personnel working on cooperation projects there,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said.

Thousands of Chinese are working on CPEC projects, but growing militant attacks against the foreigners, particularly in the turbulent southwestern Baluchistan province, have alarmed Beijing and led to a slowdown on some of the projects in recent months.

The latest attack took place in April when a female suicide bomber killed three Chinese teachers along with their local driver in the southern port city of Karachi, threatening to derail the CPEC undertaking and strain bilateral ties.

“Pakistan will further step up security measures and do all it can to protect the safety of Chinese institutions and personnel,” said the Chinese statement, quoting Sharif.

Ethnic Baluch insurgents took credit for plotting the Karachi attack as they’ve done for other raids on Chinese nationals. The insurgents claim to be fighting for an independent Baluchistan and denounce CPEC projects in the natural resources-rich region, alleging the projects are meant to deprive local residents of their resources.

China has invested nearly $25 billion over the past seven years in large-scale infrastructure development projects in Pakistan under its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to link China with the rest of the world through new roads, rail and sea routes. Both countries say the investment has created more than 70,000 direct jobs and has effectively addressed Pakistan’s energy crisis.

Xi told Sharif on Wednesday that Beijing will continue to work with Islamabad to help address its economic challenges.

Pakistan has long struggled with a balance of payments crisis in the wake of dwindling foreign exchange reserves. Severe floods this summer have added to the challenges facing the nascent Sharif administration, causing an estimated $30 billion or more in losses across the impoverished country.

The central banks of the two countries Wednesday also signed a memorandum of understanding “on establishing RMB [Chinese currency] clearing arrangement in Pakistan,” an official announcement said. It added that the deal “will further boost usage of RMB for cross-border transactions among Chinese and Pakistani enterprises and financial institutions. This will also promote bilateral trade and investment between the two countries.”

The statement continued without elaboration that “President Xi pointed out that the world, our times and history are changing in ways like never before. Facing a highly uncertain world, both sides should stand on the right side of history.”

Sharif’s office said Xi also pledged an additional assistance package of nearly $69 million to support Pakistan’s relief and rehabilitation efforts in flood-hit areas.

ML-1 upgrading

The Chinese leader stressed in his meeting with Sharif the need for the two countries to “work together to create conditions for the early implementation” of the Main Line-1 (ML-1) high-speed railway improvement project under the CPEC framework.

Pakistani officials estimate that upgrading the 1,872-kilometer colonial-era railway track between Karachi and the northwestern city of Peshawar will cost nearly $10 billion. Sharif’s office described the ML-1 as “a project of strategic importance” and said both sides “would make joint efforts for launching” it.

CPEC has built the deep-water strategic Gwadar Port in Baluchistan that gives Beijing international trade access to the Arabian Sea.

“It is important to accelerate the construction of auxiliary infrastructure for Gwadar Port to unleash its role in driving interconnected development in the region,” Xi said.

The United States has been critical of CPEC and BRI, calling them “debt diplomacy” or a “debt trap” to make developing countries increasingly rely on China.

The International Monetary Fund reported in September that about 30% of Islamabad’s foreign debt is owed to Beijing.

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