Chinese President Hu Jintao is poised to unveil an ambitious expansion of nuclear power cooperation with Pakistan when he visits next week, testing China's balance between Pakistan and its wary neighbour, India.
On the first trip to Pakistan by a Chinese president in a decade, Hu is likely to announce that China will help the South Asian nation construct several nuclear plants in coming decades, said analysts and diplomatic sources.
"The political intent is quite certain. The specifics are less certain, but this will be a political gesture above all," said one diplomatic observer in Beijing. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the official secrecy around discussions.
Islamabad has asked China to build it up to six reactors of 600 or more megawatts, at least twice the size of the 300 megawatt reactor China built at Chashma in Pakistan's eastern province of Punjab, according to the observer.
The broad deal appears likely, however, to leave the scale and specifics of cooperation for future talks -- and also leave open whether China, with its own bold plans for expanding nuclear power, can spare the expertise to back Pakistan's expansion.
But even a vague agreement will remind the world that China values its "all-weather friend" Pakistan, even while Beijing courts India, a sometimes bitter rival of both countries. Hu will visit India before Pakistan.
"Pakistan has been eager for a nuclear deal and raised it a number of times," said Zhang Li of the Institute of South Asian Studies at Sichuan University in southwest China.
"I think there are signs that Hu will make an announcement during this visit to show relations are developing in a healthy direction."
India and Pakistan both staged nuclear explosions in 1998 and have refused to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that would oblige them to give up atomic weapons.
An announcement during Hu's visit would cap intense lobbying from Islamabad, eager to expand nuclear ties with Beijing and offset India's influence and US-backed nuclear energy plan.
Last year, India signed an atomic energy pact with the United States that Congress is now studying, but Washington rebuffed Islamabad's efforts to reach a similar agreement.
Pakistan has been keen to show that it does not lack other sources of support.
When Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited Beijing in February, both sides announced they would "continue strengthening cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy".
The Beijing-based China Business Times reported in August that China was likely to announce in November it would sell Pakistan six 300-megawatt plants.
There has been no official word of any nuclear agreement during Hu's visit.
China has said any nuclear cooperation would be for peaceful purposes only and would accept international safeguards.
But the nuclear agreement may rankle Washington, worried about China's atomic exports, especially after Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist, AQ Khan, admitted in 2004 that he sold nuclear know-how to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Before China joined the NPT in 1992, it helped Pakistan develop nuclear weapons, the United States has said.
A senior Washington official said on Monday that President George W Bush might raise worries about Pakistan's nuclear programme when he meets Hu at the APEC meeting in Hanoi this week.
"We have any many occasions spoken very clearly about our concerns about proliferation and proliferation by Chinese entities to Pakistan," the official said in Washington, according to a State Department website ( www.fpc.state.gov ).