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Chinese ship opens new trade route via Pakistani port

GWADAR, Pakistan — Pakistan's top civil and military leaders on Sunday opened a new international trade route by seeing off a Chinese ship that will export goods to the Middle East and Africa from the newly built Gwadar port in insurgency-wracked Baluchistan province.

The first convoy of Chinese trucks carrying goods for sale abroad arrived in Pakistan a day earlier through newly constructed roads which link China's northwestern Xinjiang region with southwest Pakistan.

China is building a network of roads and power plants under a project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC, which is expected to absorb $46 billion in Chinese investment in the coming decades.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the country's powerful army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif traveled to Gwadar to see off the Chinese ship. The premier said the Chinese-funded multi-billion dollar project will play a significant role in improving Pakistan's economy and raising the national standard of living.

In speech to a gathering of diplomats, civil and military leadership, Nawaz Sharif vowed to provide best the possible security to all foreign investors.

He said that CPEC will benefit for 3 billion people in the region. "The Enemies of CPEC are enemies of Pakistan," he said.

Amid security concerns for foreign workers, the Pakistani army has created a special force to guard the new trade routes and the port, which is located in the same province where a Saturday blast at a Sufi shrine killed more than 50 people.

The attack was claimed by the Islamic State group and Pakistani officials said it was partially aimed at harming the Chinese-funded projects in the southwest and elsewhere in the country.

Sunday's ceremony provided the rare sight of the prime minister and the army chief sitting together and smiling. Relations between Pakistan's civil and military leadership have been publicly strained for months.

A prominent newspaper reporter recently published an article alleging tensions between the government and army over the country's counter-terrorism strategy. The article prompted accusations from the army that details had been leaked by the government, and Prime Minister Sharif launched an investigation into the issue.

China and Pakistan have long maintained close political and military relations, based partly on mutual antipathy toward neighboring India. The Gwadar port is located on the Arabian Sea and it occupies a strategic location between South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. The port is also located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, just outside the Straits of Hormuz.

China is seeking convenient and reliable access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Chinese ships now use the Strait of Malacca, a narrow passage between the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia. The proposed new route would give China access to the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East.